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.
– reviewed by Barb