Grand Central Area
By Ryk E Spoor
Rye Erik Spoor was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1962, both of his parents were teachers. He has lived in a wide variety of places and managed to nail degrees in a surprising amount of subjects. As you might guess his prior occupations are also all over the place (everything from burger flipping to production management has been listed). He currently lives with his wife Katherine, who he married in 1995 and has had four children with. Mr. Spoor was also what we call an early adopter of the internet, oddly enough. Like most of us he wrote for fun and entertainment for most of his life and even co wrote fan fiction with his wife (Saint Seiya fan fiction, which honestly is a series I haven't seen), which is posted on some dark corner of the internet. It's interesting to note that according to Mr. Spoor, it's due to his wife's influence that he can focus on characters. Mr. Spoor is also a mighty fan of old science fiction series such as Skylark (which I missed coming up) and the Lensmen (Kinnison for President!), this is important because not only are series like the two above heavy influences on the book we're reviewing, they're the reason he become a published writer in the first place. This all starts with an internet flame war you see. A flame war between Mr. Spoor and Eric Flint. Mr. Flint is a professional writer known these days primarily for his 1632 series (which I'm not discussing in-review sorry). Back then he had been put in charge of a reissuing of James Scmitz's stories and was misquoted stirring up a lot of opposition, some of it led by Mr. Spoor. This being the internet, Mr. Flint was soon involved and strangely enough, instead of the argument dissolving into a screaming flamefest... It turned into a rational discussion and led to peace (I should note that no one recommends trying this as a method of breaking into publishing, you're just as likely to get yourself locked out). From this point Mr. Flint and Mr. Spoor developed a friendship, which led to Mr. Flint finding out about Mr. Spoor's writing and finding out he liked it and recommended it to Jim Baen, the owner of Baen books and here we are today...
That said Grand Central Arena isn't his first book, just the first I've read and damn if it ain't interesting. The set up goes like this: in the not quite so far but not that soon future Humanity has worked out the majority of it's crap. The creation of Artificial Intelligence and nanomachine driven 3D printing along with the final perfection of fusion power has solved the material needs of humanity. With the cheap power that fusion provided (I assume with better batteries as well honestly because our power storage technology is kinda meh) humanity was able to expand all across the solar system. No one goes hungry, no one lacks for health care, living space, or opportunities to develop their skills and talents. Genetic modification is easy and relatively painless, so there are many avenues of self expression through body modification or you can enhance yourself to meet the challenges of a new environment or job if you get truly bored. Most boring labor is done by robots (super roombas have finally seized complete control of janitor duties) meaning people can focus on jobs they would actually want to do, as opposed to have to do or starve to death (and to be blunt we arrange things that way currently because there is no way enough people would volunteer to be janitors or trashmen or what have you actually keep things running). With nothing material to fight over and enough space for everyone to live comfortably, along with virtual realities to help provide an outlet for people... Things have grown super peaceful for humanity. There's barely a government, money is generated by getting people interested in what you're doing and donating “interest vectors” which gives you more access to energy and materials. Basically... Imagine a bunch of modern techie anarchists wrote star trek, only with no FTL or aliens (or Eclipse Phase without the manic AI's and oppressive governments for those who need a geekier reference).
Speaking of the lack of FTL, there's a gentleman who working on solving that, named Simon Sandrisson. Simon is a super-genius who has already upturned the realm of physics by proving that there's an Universal Frame of Reference.I asked a few physics buddies about this and their response was “Imagine someone just proved that there is a God and he's watching the universe, because that's basically what would have just happened.” Simon isn't content with making mathematical discoveries that have a profound scientific and theological implications however. He wants the Holy Grail, he wants to go Faster Than Light and thinks this can help him do it. Being a responsible lad, he used unmanned probes with his FTL engine first. There's a problem with this... They keep not coming back. He tried sending probes with AI pilots, when they come back... They show they were off the whole time. So he decides what he needs to do is set up a manned mission, to lead it he recruits the best damn pilot in the whole Solar System, our main character Ariane Austin. Ariane is a professional space race pilot, which means she flies at brain melting speeds through the void of space in a single pilot ship through obstacle courses that would turn fighter pilot's hair gray (well, their flight surgeon's hair at least). When offered the chance to make history she goes for it and helps Simon recruit a crew of men and women willing to go where no man has gone before and it's a doozy.
They find themselves in Grand Central Arena, an artificial creation of an ancient race no one has ever seen, whose technological abilities were so damn advanced that it looks like magic to characters who lived their entire lives with replicators and easy space travel. The GCA is a scale model of the universe, each star system is represented by a sphere usually about 20,0000 kilometers across. Inside the sphere is a scale model of the star system in question. The outside of a sphere is usually a habitable environment with a breathable atmosphere. It is possible to fly from sphere to sphere. In fact a number of aliens make it a point to settle spheres as colonies. For you see the GCA not only solves the whole FTL thing, but also provided an answer to Fermi's paradox. Fermi's paradox, thought of by Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicist of the 20th century, to express a simple question: according to biology and physics there should be other planets with life on them, given the observed age of the universe, there should be planets where life developed before us. So given all these facts... Where the hell is everyone? The answer in this series is they're all bopping about the GCA. These spheres aren't floating about unconnected in the ether, they're connected to the Grand Central Arena itself. It's a marketplace, a diplomatic meeting place, a gladiatorial arena all in one. It's practically Babylon 5 if it was built by the first ones. I mention technology that looked like magic? This place creates personalized life support for each individual, by which I mean this. Imagine you and three aliens meet in a room. You need a oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere at around a single g for comfort, however one of your alien buddies needs 3 times that gravity and a methane based atmosphere, another one needs about .75 g's and a chlorine atmosphere and a third one can breath oxygen but requires a much wetter environment to keep her skin from drying out. In the GCA you can all meet in that single room without any specialized life support equipment because it converts the atmosphere as it hits you and is constantly adjusting the effect of gravity to your comfort on an individual level. Yes, just make this clear, you could be standing a foot away from someone and they'll be experiencing three times the gravity and breathing poison as you and you won't feel a damn thing! On top of this, the GCA is capable of changing basic laws of nature, nuclear events won't happen in the GCA. No nuclear bombs, no nuclear power plants, all fission and fusion just goes inert. This is an issue because the FTL ship is powered by a fusion reactor! So now our characters have to figure out how to buy enough power to turn their FTL engine on and get back home. Luckily there's a thriving market in selling energy, they just gotta figure out how to make the trade.
It's not all sunshine and magic however, the builders of the GCA have disappeared millions of years ago leaving it inhabited by aliens who do not understand the technology that built it and are not unified in purpose (the GCA is so damn old that sapient species have evolved within it's environment). The aliens are divided into factions, some are friendly, some are neutral, some are secretive and others are downright hostile. They all have their own goals and objectives and are interested in getting humanity to further them. The GCA has laws that it enforces via environmental control (get too stroppy in a public place and you'll find yourself being smashed under 3 times your normal gravity for example) and a group of public enforcers who act as police and judge. Araine finds herself by the virtue of being the captain of the first human ship to breach the FTL barrier as the defacto leader of humanity in the GCA. This is an issue because the factions and alien species solve their problems via challenges, which can be anything from competitive puzzle solving to fights to the death. With Humanity being the first new species to emerge into the GCA on it's own power in over 5000 years, they attracted a lot of attention and everyone has their own ideas about what humanity should be doing. Araine has to protect her crew and protect our unknowing species while building up enough credit to get everyone back home. Oh, she also has to avoid not dying while being pulled into a factional fight between aliens with powers we can't understand who’ve taken a personal interest in her. But hey if the job was easy, everyone would want to be Captain.
As you might guess, I really enjoyed Grand Central Arena. It helps that all the human characters were reasonable adults and that Mr. Spoor avoided any silly drama for the sake of drama. For example Simon and another character Marc Duquesne (who is a Skylark reference and I'll stop here for the sake of spoilers) both have a thing for Ariane. There's no high school back stabbing or underhandedness here though, they both make their interest known like adults and both manage to work together as professionals agreeing that making sure everyone gets home alive is more important than getting laid. Ariane for her part makes her own feelings known clear and doesn't jerk anyone around, nor does she let this shit get in the way of her job. Frankly I approve of this. Additionally the factions were all fairly interesting if basic, I didn't go to in depth into them here to avoid spoilers but I found the way Mr. Spoor balanced them to be interesting. I also loved the aliens, the majority of them were non-mammalian and nowhere near humanoid but not strange enough to be unrelatable That all said, this is pure 21st century pulp sci-fi of the highest quality. If you don't like pulp, if you're be put off by people monkeying about with the laws of science and what not... Then you're gonna hate this book. That said if you like some two fisted, thrilling heroics with exotic locations, strange new exciting people and the whole universe being flipped upside down? This is your book. This book was fun and interesting and I couldn't stop reading it. I'm giving Grand Central Arena by Ryk E Spoor a B+
Next week, it's time Glen Cook got some space on this review series, we gonna look at Sweet Silver Blues. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.