The Orpheus Plot, by Christopher Swiedler

The Orpheus Plot is fun, and an excellent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Its dramatic arc has a similar structure, it has good kid vs adult conflict, and it digs into some moral quandaries. Even better, it’s all about a young teen coming into his own through his larger struggles against the powers that would control him and his world. It’s more than that, too, but those are parallels enough for me to know that I should reference this book. That fact that it’s also space-adventure MG sci-fi, vanishingly rare, is just icing on the cake.

The biggest reservation I had with In The Red is resolved here; The Orpheus Plot clearly digs into the social questions and issues of its setting, rather than more or less pretending those things don’t exist. I’m glad it does. I can see how In The Red’s narrator might not have been aware of those larger struggles, but I think The Orpheus Plot is more interesting and more rewarding for focusing so much on the societal struggles of Inner System-vs-Belter politics and the struggles of life in the Belt in general.

Now, because of how similar our stories are (and because I do actually think both my story and Swiedler’s are good) most of my quibbles about this book are smaller scale and more personal. If you want middle grade space sci-fi I can already tell you to pick this up. If you want me to pry a little deeper, keep reading.

First, a few thoughts about some of the emotional arcs.

Some of the emotional resolution later on felt a little rushed or unexpected. There were hints of social and emotional arcs that had outgrown the established material without enough support in place for their final end points—mostly in the narrator’s interactions with other students towards the end. And there were a few places as the climax rolled on where it felt like a scene or interaction happened because it needed to be in the story and the main character needed that push, rather than because the story world led us there… just normal issues, spots where I felt like I could see the seams that revealed the story’s artifice. Also, those interactions are classic genre tropes, and they don’t feel out of place so much as they feel noticeable.

Now, a bigger difference between The Orpheus Plot and Bury’em Deep: I think Christopher Swiedler has more positive opinions of hegemony, authority, and the system than I do. That, or he’s less willing to question such things in fiction for middle grade readers.

Relatedly, there are some ways in which Swiedler’s space-future feels remarkably staid. There isn’t much queerness (I think I recall one mention of a non-het couple?), and neither the hegemonic center nor the frontier fringe have much visible divergence from our own social norms. That feels odd.

Historically speaking, divergence from shared social norms increases with time and distance. “The past is a foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley. People telling stories about the past usually put considerable effort into rewriting, recontextualizing, and even obscuring pieces of the past in order to make history match the author’s social standards, preferring to highlight the places where things are still the same (and make up commonalities where they need more). Many Westerns are an excellent example of that, ignoring the queer, non-traditional, and racially intermixed communities that developed on the frontier of the expanding US in favor of writing about strong independent straight white men.

But the future is a foreign country too. I wanted more of a departure from our own ideas of how society works, more ‘foreign-but-recognizable’ social conventions. The Orpheus Plot clearly has some, and highlights the differences between Belters and Inner System folks, but I wanted more of them. I wanted to know that there were “total weirdos” out there somewhere, and I wanted to feel more confident that life as we know it feels totally foreign to our narrator—that, from our narrator’s perspective, we readers would be uncannily different.

But I think the key to this, the reason this story feels more staid or in line with authority, comes back to the stories it most reminds me of. This story’s narrative arc reminds me of Treasure Island, or a reimagining of something from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s series. And whatever issues this story might raise with authority (the Navy, Inner System-dominated politics, etc) those authorities are still presented as less-bad than the alternative.

I’ll go into further detail, but there’ll be some *SPOILERS*.

So, this story is more than a modernization of those old Age of Sail adventure stories. But while we’re exposed to the ways in which the system is clearly bad for Belters, and we’re given a sympathetic view of Belters’ complaints, the story’s key revolutionaries are never painted with anything but a villainous brush. Heck, the big villain—leading the revolution—is almost comically evil, engaging in some really tropey, mustache-twirling bad stuff. And we never see enough of his side of things, or hear enough about his story, for those actions to feel anything but melodramatic. Moreover, he’s enough of a scumbag the rest of the time that it’s easy to ignore the validity of his larger complaints. No matter how much sense some of his complaints might make, and no matter how the narrator might pointedly agree at times, he’s still obviously bad rather than complicated.

It’s okay to have bad guys in your stories. But I wanted there to be more complication to the central conflict, rather than having the most sympathetic revolutionary (not that main baddie) feel more like a less-charming Long John Silver. 

Part of the struggle here is just time and focus in the book, I think. That less-charming Long John Silver, a Navy crewmate involved in the lower decks’ conspiracy with the revolutionary Belters, never quite has enough narrative focus to become a helpful replacement parental figure. Without that narrative focus, without the warm fuzzies of a friendly older ally on the ship, we (and the narrator) don’t quite feel close enough to him to wonder why he makes the choices he does. That means that even when he offers us a little more moral complexity near the end of the story, it doesn’t carry as much narrative weight as it could have, had there been more connection there.

Plus, our narrator is so concerned with making it in the Navy and not rocking the boat that we never get as much honest reflection on how the Navy isn’t doing well by the Belters. There’s a brief scene where that becomes relevant, but it’s not in the forefront enough of the time, the way it’d need to be if the story were really digging into the oppression experienced by the Belters. Honestly, I’m not sure how the story would have worked if that had been written differently. I suspect the book would have had to be longer. *END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I don’t know that I did a better job (in Bury’em Deep) with any of the issues I’m critiquing in The Orpheus Plot. But I think interrogating those points, poking the issues and digging deeper, is really important. And maybe, I hope, doing that in fiction for kids will invite their further reflection.

The Orpheus Plot is good space adventure fun. If that’s what you’re hankering for, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.

In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler… plus other thoughts

I write this while distracted. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is eating at my mental budget (hot take: the Russian invasion is bad). I’ve struggled, wondering whether I should put this book review aside and instead write about the war in Ukraine right now, or just sit down and write a review without mentioning what was happening. But two things leapt out at me while thinking about that.

One, if I’m going to write about Ukraine, I’m probably going to approach it from an analysis of the speeches of Zelensky and Putin over the past few days, and a discussion of the social and geopolitical concerns involved. Worse, giving the invasion the attention it deserves will take more time than I have for this today… and possibly more time than today, period.

Two, my struggle with writing this review and ignoring mention of the invasion of Ukraine is relevant to my discussion of this book.

Why?

Give me a moment, and I’ll tell you.

In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler, is a fun science fiction survival adventure written for middle grade readers. For nerdy middle grade readers, probably. Sold as Hatchet meets The Martian, it delivers on those ambitious comp titles.

I found it in the process of researching agents for my own middle grade science fiction adventure, Bury’em Deep, and I’m glad I did. First, I’m glad because I think the agent who repped it might like my manuscript—though as ever, queries are a shot in the dark and I sent my query to her before I’d read this book, due to library delays. Second, I’m glad because it’s fun. I enjoyed reading it.

To elaborate: I was a huge fan of Hatchet when I got my hands on it in third grade. In The Red has a lot of the same energy, and Young Henry would have loved this book. So if you like middle grade survival fiction, and if you like science fiction, you’ll probably like In The Red too.

But finally, I’m glad I found In The Red because I think it’s a decent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Mostly. I’ll explore how they diverge in a moment.

But first, In The Red is a good comp title for Bury’em Deep because the two books are so similar in genre and structure. The rhythm of narrative tension, and the way both books escalate tension and stakes, is parallel. In several cases that’s true almost down to the chapter and page. I go a little harder right at the start of Bury’em Deep, but otherwise the books’ slow build and intermittent spikes match each other’s feel quite neatly. Furthermore, both main characters share the fundamental desire to be safe and go home, and both have some ”questionable” risk assessments. And the similarities continue in their emotional experiences: both Michael (of ITR) and Barry (of BD) are anxious, though I think Michael’s experience of anxiety is closer to a classic clinical diagnosis.

But how do the books diverge?

And what the hell does all of this have to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or with my desire to write about that invasion instead of writing this book review?

In The Red is a good middle grade science fiction survival story. It replicates the feel of Hatchet, and it threads The Martian’s needle of being a mostly-hard sci-fi survival story on Mars that still feels engaging.

But it confines itself to those stakes.

Our narrator’s survival story isn’t impinged upon by any other social concerns, or any awareness of what’s happening—please imagine me waving my hands—“out there somewhere.” This means that I have no sense, when reading it, of what the rest of the setting is like or what else might be going on. I don’t know who’s at war with whom, I don’t know what Michael’s parents worry about late at night, I don’t know what social issues are present and plaguing the Mars colonies or erupting out in the Belt. For that matter, I don’t know what the hell is happening in Florida, where one of our characters is from. We’re never given a hint. Apparently Florida still exists, and the Florida Keys haven’t been entirely submerged by sea level rise. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

I don’t know how well I succeed, but I’ve tried to make Bury’em Deep feel different than that.

Returning to the start of this piece, the answer to my struggle was to write about this book and to mention the Russian invasion. And that “yes both” approach was my approach for making Bury’em Deep feel like a more realized setting. I want readers to trust that they’d know if something as momentous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine were going on in Barry’s setting. I want them to trust that they’d at least find out when Barry did. I want them to believe that Barry would have opinions about such a thing.

I’ll elaborate.

Barry, and thus the reader, doesn’t know everything that’s going on. His understanding of his world (well, solar system) is imperfect, and he’s not well-versed in all the relevant political and social conflicts that are going on. But he’s aware of some of it, and he can’t ignore how those conflicts impinge on his life. Moreover, his awareness of those conflicts and struggles only increases over the course of the story. And while his immediate struggles for survival are small in scope, they are tied to many other much larger struggles. 

Basically, Bury’em Deep is political. I try to give as deep a setting background as I can without ever breaking Barry’s train of thought. I want to enable my readers to draw their own conclusions about the status quo in Barry’s solar system, and I want them to question how reliable and astute a political observer this thirteen-year-old spacer kid might be. I’m not trying to pull one over on the audience with an unreliable narrator, I just want the readers to ask themselves questions. And I want deeper questions to be available for more advanced readers, without getting in the way of a less advanced reader’s enjoyment.

This difference, the distinction between something that feels “apolitical” (In The Red) and something that is absolutely jam packed with political observation and experience (Bury’em Deep), feels like a difference in era as well. The science fiction that In The Red feels like is older, and less interested in critiquing society. It isn’t as interested in examining, or even acknowledging, modern day moral and ethical questions. It’s willing to accept our social assumptions and go have fun doing something adventurous. It doesn’t encourage readers to imagine those possible moral arguments, or to wonder for themselves what might be right, just, or good.

And I’m fine with that. I don’t think every book has to be a deep dive into hegemony. I don’t think every book has to question our bedrock assumptions about society and personhood and what is moral or ethical.

But “apolitical” is a quiet lie: all art is political. Not poking at our social assumptions goes hand in hand with tacitly approving of them.

Thus, I fervently want some genre fiction out there that does question our social assumptions. I want some genre fiction that doesn’t put on its blinders and just focus on the fun adventure to be had. I want fun, yes, and adventure, but ideally I’d love those things with a dash of wondering about whether what someone has done was just or correct. I want young readers to enjoy a story, and I want to invite them to engage critically with that story’s world.

My hope with Bury’em Deep was that it would be gateway fiction. I wanted Bury’em Deep to steer young readers towards books by N.K. Jemisin. I wanted to introduce classic science fiction questions about the boundaries of humanity, popularized with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner and the old versions of Ghost in the Shell. And I wanted to be honest about the struggles and conflicts in my characters’ lives, not keep troublesome and scary things hidden. That means mentioning the invasion of Ukraine, or allowing similar things to be a part of the setting.

In The Red focuses on being honest with readers about anxiety and panic attacks. My hope is that Bury’em Deep does that with the question of who we count as a person and where that boundary lies. So they’re not quite the same book after all.

Update, 2/10/22

No review for the moment, just an update. I’ve got Sal & Gabi Break the Universe right now, and am looking forward to getting my hands on In The Red soon (which for some reason wasn’t available as an ebook through Libby). My recent book-sprint has slowed down again, just waiting for it to pick back up again. Might have something to do with watching more shows than I usually allow myself to, or giving myself permission to watch them less attentively than I usually try to.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Murderbot to my partner and they’ve been loving it. I love rereading it too, though I’d forgotten how difficult some of it is for reading aloud. It turns out that while I think Martha Wells was right to bury some conversations in paragraphs the way that she did, simply because that’s how they fit in Murderbot’s stream of consciousness, it’s a lot harder to read those buried lines aloud without breaking up my reading to clarify what Murderbot says versus what it thinks. This could be easier, if I had thought to come up with a distinct voice for Murderbot’s speech as opposed to its thoughts, but alas I did not.

Besides, that would be odd, right? It’s all Murderbot. It should sound more similar than different.

It’s not all bad though. I did luck into some hilariously good voices by accident, especially while reading ART’s lines.

I’m not sure what next week is going to look like, or whether I’ll be able to post much; I’ve been selected for jury duty, and might be otherwise occupied.

Oh, and on the video game front, following up the Hero’s Hour post from two weeks back… there’s another game that also obviously wants to follow the path of the old Heroes of Might and Magic games: Songs of Conquest. It’s not available yet, though early access is supposed to start in March. From the little I’ve seen so far, it looks like they’ve focused a larger team with more resources on making fewer factions in a game with more visual polish and greater similarity to HoMM’s old combat mechanics. Hopefully it is also more stable.