Growing Up Weightless
(1993/2022) John M. Ford, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, ix + 225pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23282-2
This is a coming of age story set on the Moon, as super-intelligent prodigy teenager, Matthias (Matt) Roney dreams of travelling on to explore the stars while playing complex, virtual reality, live-action role playing games and running sophisticated mazes with his friends.
Mattís father, Albin Roney has problems of his own, running into political corruption and financial stalling for his high investment plans for bringing water reserves to the Moon.
The lunar world is beautifully realised, with multiple cities connected by a London Underground style network. The Moon has gained political independence from Earth, and serves as a port-base for ships heading out to the stars. Matthias watches the ships come and go, learns their histories from his tablet computer systems, and sometimes asks friendly crewmen about options for gaining work and passage with them. Matt can tell who the newly arrived Earthlings are when he sees them on the Moon, when they move clumsily on foot, crashing into doors and walls and falling over a lot because they havenít adapted to the lower gravity. Matt calls them Slammers. This is one of the few bits of youth slang that the story explains. The gaming language has its own vocabulary that is never translated and seems to be partly in Russian.
The biggest problem with the story is Matt being just fourteen but behaving throughout like a university graduate. His father seems to have no problem with Matt going off for week long gaming excursions with his friends in a moon-world where accidents, (or a later public riot) could prove fatal.
The games take Matt and his friends into Sherwood Forest, with Mattís main avatar being Lonestar, a Robin Hood type hero overthrowing the machinations of the Sheriff Of Nottingham and King John. So much time is spent exploring these adventures that they detract from the actual reality situation and expect the readers to care as much about the fate of Lonestar as Matt himself.
The emphasis on Mattís need for escape (getting off-world) and his passion for escapism (the comforts he finds in problem-solving in a treacherous gaming realm) constantly pulls the reader away from the much more fascinating reality of Moon life.
Another complication is that the book is devoid of chapter breaks, with action sweeping from the virtual to the real from paragraph to paragraph, which can make for complicated back-reading to catch up with where the reader is up to. It even does this in switching between father and son points of view.
The political disputes bogging down the rather calm and collected father figure are somewhat dull, though it is interesting that he uses computers to talk with multiple figures who are not in the room with him, coming across as remarkably similar to post-CoVID Zoom meetings. It feels remarkably prophetic in retrospect.
Matt finds hope of escape through a demanding acting school, who have potential to send successful students off-world to entertain peoples on other planets and space stations, but many will fail to make the grade which will also require extraordinary sacrifices.
Mattís father certainly loves and respects him despite being somewhat over-absorbed in his own struggles. He only remembers to directly talk with the boy when friends remind him to do so, and the loveliest passage in the book comes midway through when Albin plays an assassin in a Robin Hood-esque game with his son, and they bond beautifully while playing out a sword fight duel to the virtual death like they were Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone going head to head in an old swashbuckling melodrama.
Other characters, such as Mattís friends, his mother (who turns up for occasional meals), and Albinís political opponents are not really fleshed out at all, and everything feels crammed together due to the lack of separate chapters and tendency to skip between points of view and into the virtual realm in a heartbeat.
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