Ryk Spoor’s “Grand Central Arena” — Imaginative Space Opera

Ryk Spoor’s GRAND CENTRAL ARENA is an imaginative piece of space opera that’s set on a near-future Earth where artificial intelligence — AI — is taken for granted.  Most people have what are known as AISages — that is, artifically intelligent personalities — that work with them inside their heads to the point that people who refuse to have them are considered, at best, weird.  Many things have changed, including bio-mods in the womb (changing hair color, eyesight, skin color, etc., to something completely unnatural), but most things are understandable to the reader, including the fact that humans are still restricted to the Solar System and haven’t done extensive amounts of space travel due to the lack of a practical FTL system.  Because of that, humanity has not discovered any other intelligences than our own at the start of this novel.

At any rate, our heroes are the bold, fearless space pilot Ariane Austin, enigmatic power engineer Marc C. DuQuesne (his name and some of his personality is based on the E.E. “Doc” Smith’s character, and is no accident), pretty-boy physicist Simon Sandrisson (discoverer of the Sandrisson Drive, which allows for faster than light flight), and five others, including a doctor and a biologist; they’ve been chosen by the Space Security Council to take the first manned interstellar FTL flight.  Austin was hand-picked by Sandrisson in order to be a last-ditch “fail-safe” mostly because of her outstanding piloting skills, and partly because he’s sexually attracted to her.  (I suppose there are worse reasons.)  These are powerful individuals with very strong personalities, which is emblematic of the whole classic space opera style.

The first quarter to third of the novel details the various aspects of how the crew, once picked, gets to know each other and what Austin, DuQuesne and the computer specialists do to retrofit the newly-christened Holy Grail spaceship with non-AI-augmented circuitry, as they realize in a true emergency the AIs might go down.  This can be slow going at times, with an odd, disconnected feel that’s thrown in by the strong reliance on AIs by many members of the crew, but bear with it because things are about to get interesting.

Once the Sandrisson Drive is engaged, something truly bizarre happens: the Holy Grail emerges within what appears at first to be a large tin can.  (No, it’s not literally made of tin.  But it’s not something the humans understand, either.)  Only Austin’s skills — plus all that retrofitting she, Dusquene, and the computer specialists did beforehand — are able to save the ship and get it to stop before it crashes into the walls of the enclosure.  Next, they have to figure out where they are and what to do about it.  But they’re hampered, some of them more severely than others, because their AIs have all gone on the blink and refuse to work anymore; the humans now have to rely simply on themselves in order to figure things out.  This gives the reader fully understandable people to root for, and adds to the overall tension nicely.

But what, exactly, have they gotten themselves into?

Once the crew explores a bit, they find out that they’ve come to a place that features an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere similar to Earth along with all sorts of intelligent xenosophonts, a place that’s similar in some respects to Grand Central Station in New York (hence the title).  In other words, this is a place where many different types of intelligent life have gone through it on the way to other destinations.  

Which means it’s time to meet the aliens. 

First, we meet Orphan, the last member the Liberated faction, who’s sort of like a bipedal, intelligent scorpion.  Orphan is a resourceful survivor-type who is willing to help the humans — almost too much so, which makes DuQuesne (one of the few survivors of a failed social and political experiment called “Hyperion,” a plot point that’s more important than it seems at first) extremely nervous.  Then, in rapid succession, we meet the Shadeweavers, who aren’t so much one particular species as they are a philosophy, that of using power for its own sake in a way that may as well be called “psychic” though it quite probably is no such thing; the Faith, who uses the same power the Shadeweavers do, but feel the powers they’re using are gifts from God (or at least some sort of Deity figure) and also admit many different physical types; and the Molothos — a seven-legged species that is pitiless, merciless, and nasty as Hell mostly because they hate all other species than their own.

As you might expect from this cross-section of other species, this place is not necessarily beneficent, which is where the “Arena” portion of the title comes into play.  Austin and the others quickly discover that in order to be considered an adult species — one that reasons and can think for itself and choose its own destiny, much less even return to Earth again — humans will have to answer a challenge successfully.  And answering, in this case, means only one thing: surviving the challenge, and living to tell the tale. 

So, can the humans survive long enough to figure out the Arena?  What’s up with all these aliens, anyway?  Which ones will Austin and the rest become allies with, as obviously Orphan by himself isn’t going to be enough to help them, formidable though he proves to be?  Will they be able to return to Earth any time soon?  And, finally, which of the two men, Sandrisson and DuQuesne, will have the better chance with Austin?  The answers to these questions riveted my attention until the final page was turned.

This is an intelligently written space opera with a great deal to recommend it.  I thought the science here — the Sandrisson drive, the AISages, even the bio-mods — enhanced the futuristic feel, and made sense in context.  The aliens were well-drawn for the most part, with understandable motivations despite their disparate cultures, which is consistent with the overall homage Spoor has said he intended to old-fashioned, rip-roaring space opera.  And I appreciated the characterization of the humans, especially that of DuQuesne; all eight humans go through realistic changes, and all eight have obvious flaws that enhance the narrative rather than detract.

The biggest thing that concerned me was the novel’s start, which as I said before was slower than I’d expected (I’ve read Spoor’s DIGITAL KNIGHT, which has a faster build-up) and somewhat disconnected due to the humans’ reliance on the AISages.  But providing you can get past the whole “supplying the spaceship” bit, you should like GRAND CENTRAL ARENA a great deal because it’s a lot of fun.

Grade: A.

– reviewed by Barb

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  1. #1 by seawasp on August 13, 2011 - 9:31 am

    Thanks very much for your review! :) A lovely review and one I’ll have to link to.

    But… “Tin Can”? It’s more like an unobtainium beachball of God-sized proportions (20,000km across, with the “Inner Sphere” livable area being a fairly small layer at the top.

    The start being slow is actually a rewrite. The original draft began at the point when the Holy Grail is launched, with the crew introduced by the check-sequence and Ariane’s internal monologue.

    I’m curious — what parts of the beginning indicated that Simon chose Ariane partially for her appearance? In my own head, he chose her (A) for her tremendous skill, and (B) because she happened to have connections to several OTHER crewmember candidates which gave him a crew that worked better together. It was AFTER she was selected that he started really finding her attractive. So I’m wondering if there’s something specific I had in there which said otherwise.

    • #2 by Barb Caffrey on August 13, 2011 - 4:54 pm

      I’m sorry, Ryk . . . that was the only thing that came to mind when Ariane and the others showed up there. Their computers weren’t working (you rendered that well) — at least, their fully up-to-date with AIs computers weren’t — and they hadn’t a clue what it was. A picture can only show you so much; if there’s no real light there (I don’t think there was much), and there’s no colors to look at (a waste of time even if they were there, with no light, so it’s just as well you didn’t describe any), and you have no idea what you’re looking at, it may as well be a tin can. ;-)

      Granted, that’s my sense of humor at play — sorry ’bout that — but I was thinking about the whole phenomenon where Spaniards or Englishmen or whatever “advanced culture” sailor went out to various island nations who’d never seen a ship like that, and the islanders’ eyes literally didn’t know how to render what they were seeing. There’s a lot of that in the way you’re describing what Ariane, DuQuesne, Sandrisson, etc., are seeing — once they know what it is, we know it’s an airlock of sorts and a space station or at least a waystation. But before that, no, we don’t really know what it is because no human’s ever been there before. I thought you rendered that whole “what _is_ that?” feeling very well.

      As for Simon’s reaction to Ariane — well, he’s obviously extremely attracted to her. He’s worried about his appearance, which is one tip-off; granted, he went there because of her piloting and because he knew Ariane’s flight-test engineer, but he certainly is attracted to her once he sees her.

      Now, would he have asked her to pilot for him no matter what she looked like? Definitely. But the attraction did seem to play into it a little.

      I think your editor’s suggestion to flesh out the beginning was the right call even though there was that bit of oddness here and there (especially when dealing with Laila Canning’s biologist character, which certainly was intentional considering she had three AIs with her at all times that she relied upon heavily. I’ll be interested to see what happens with her character in a sequel, or several sequels.) Oddness, or oddity, or the whole disjointed feeling isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a space opera — anything that gets the idea across that this isn’t exactly our Earth we’re dealing with is helpful.

      And yes, please do link to the review. :-)

  1. Just reviewed Ryk Spoor’s “Grand Central Arena” for SBR « Barb Caffrey's Blog
  2. Ryk Spoor’s “Digital Knight” — A Fun Take on Things that go Bump in the Night « Shiny Book Review

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