You Should be Reading LJ Cohen’s Halcyone Space
If you like science fiction, you should be reading this. I mean, just shut the hell up, go buy the damn book and start reading. I finished Parallax (the fourth book) last night and I want to read the next one today. That sucks because she hasn’t even written it yet and Cohen isn’t one of those folks that can hammer out a book a month.
But I know the fifth book is going to be better than what I just read because every single book in this series has been better than the one that came before it. I almost don’t even want to tell you to go read Derelict (the first book) because you won’t understand the depth of awesome here, but you’ve got to read the first book first or a number of things won’t make sense.
Shit’s Got Consequences, Y’all
As readers, we give creators a pretty broad license to do whatever the heck they want with their characters and plot. I mean that not in the sense that we have any right to tell them what to do, but in the sense that we’ll keep reading and watching even when some stuff doesn’t make sense.
How many times have you read or watched something where a character went through something absolutely horrific only for them to show up in the next book/episode/movie like nothing had happened? It happens all the damn time and it’s complete nonsense. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had. Neither would you. Neither would the characters in your favorite stories.
In the Halcyone Space universe, things have consequences.
In the Halcyone Space universe, things have consequences. I won’t get into spoilery stuff, but there is something that happens in the first book that is one of the primary drivers of the plot of the second book. There’s another thing that happens in the climactic sequence that’s still driving decisions in the fourth book.
Even better, there’s something that happens in the first book that’s a little extreme. When I first read it, I wrote it off as being the kind of exaggeration you do to take everyday people and make them the stuff of epic stories. In Parallax, we learn the backstory and it turns out that wasn’t simply exaggeration, but a perfectly reasonable response to some very unreasonable experiences.
Ultimately, we find out about the backstory in a conversation that is, itself a reaction to other actions.
It’s really beautiful stuff to see.
The Parents are Actually There
That conversation is between a parent and one of their children. I’m not a huge reader of YA, but in what I do read, I often find that the parents are either completely absent or completely incompetent.
In Harry Potter, the parents are gone and the parental substitutes are relatively minor players. They’re mostly there so we can see where Harry comes from. In The Hunger Games, one parent is absent and the other might as well be.
That’s fine, of course, the story isn’t about them and it’s hard to include parents in a story about children that doesn’t involve the parents doing everything in their ability to make things easier on their kids. That’s what parents do but in fiction, the stakes have to keep getting higher. It’s a hard trick to pull off.
[I]t’s hard to include parents in a story about children that doesn’t involve the parents doing everything in their ability to make things easier on their kids…[b]ut Cohen does it here and she does it really well.
But Cohen does it here and she does it really well. The parents—some of them anyway—are present and interact on a routine basis with the kids that are at the heart of the story. The relationships they have with their kids—and the kids’ attitudes towards their parents are exactly the kind of thing real people feel, but exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect.
There are a pair of brothers, Jem and Barre, whose parents are doctors. Jem is a brilliant coder who does extremely well in school and his parents are justifiably proud of him. Barre is less good in school and can’t coder for shit, but he’s an utterly brilliant musician. There’s even a scene in Derelict that explicitly points out that Barre can do things that Jem doesn’t even understand. The parents aren’t really proud of Barre because they think of music as a hobby, not a career. As far as they are concerned, Barre is getting close to being an adult and it’s time for him to put his hobbies on the back shelf and start concentrating on something serious people do.
It’s bullshit, of course, but it’s something parents everywhere have been doing since the dawn of time.
The Universe Gets Bigger
I am, at heart, an epic fantasy guy. I want a world that feels real. I want to know that there is stuff going on off-screen. I want to know that the world existed before the book started and will continue to exist after the book ends. I want deep, immersive worlds with more stuff going on than any creator can reasonably write about in a single lifetime.
That’s why it’s so awesome that the universe gets bigger and bigger with every book. In Derelict, the universe is relatively compact. We hear about The Commonwealth and we understand that’s a vast, shall we say, federation of planets with a single government, but we don’t see much of it. We hear that there are people who don’t like The Commonwealth, but we only interact with them at the fringes. It’s mostly one space station, one ship, and some stuff that gets a little out of control.
In Ithaka Rising, the universe gets bigger when the kids leave that first space station and interact with people out in the wider world.
In Dreadnaught and Shuttle, we get to Earth and we learn some things about what happened between our time and the time that’s explored in the series.
In Parallax, we see more of Earth, and do so in the context of exploring the home region of a character introduced in Dreadnaught and Shuttle. We learn that there’s an entire class of people who aren’t like the people we’ve seen on the space stations. They live very different lives with a monumentally different perspective. From where they’re sitting, the Commonwealth and the people fighting the Commonwealth are virtually indistinguishable.
In the real world, things are often a bit more complicated than that, regardless of what “that” actually is. In Parallax, the universe gets bigger not just because we see more of it, but because we’re exposed to elements in the known universe that we didn’t know about. There are more powers that be than simply the Commonwealth and the people who hate it.
Real World Sociopolitical Analogue
In many ways, the world of Halcyone Space mirrors our own. The politics are complicated, multi-faceted, and driven by a mix of the absolute best and utter worst of humanity.
One of the ways I particularly appreciated was how, in Parallax, we finally see how the other half lives.
One of the ways I particularly appreciated was how, in Parallax, we finally see how the other half lives. There is an extent to which we’d seen it before—even in space, the 1% live different lives—but everyone on the space station has shelter, food, and health care.
In Parallax, we see the people on Earth who would never have a chance to go to space. We see how being from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks means you can’t travel out of your ghetto without getting a completely random extended search from your neighborhood TSA agent.
We learn that there are people who are treated differently merely because they come from the wrong place. Assumptions are made about them, even by people who are supposed to be on their side and by people who tell themselves they don’t care where people come from.
We see the differences. We see the unfairness of it all, and unless we’re completely blind to reality, we see it as a reflection of the real world.
That’s one of the reasons I primarily read and watch science fiction and fantasy. In it, we can talk about real-world issues without the real-world hang-ups. We can talk about how unfair this nonsense is without making it about this identity or that religion or whatever.
Representation Without Taxation
Along similar lines, these books contain gay characters, Japanese characters, black characters, Latin characters, female characters, none of whom is there to be the gay character, the Japanese character, the black character, the Latin character, or the female character.
They’re just characters who happen to be who and what they are.
They’re just characters who happen to be who and what they are. Those things affect their decisions, of course—there’s a same sex couple that has to fight to stay together, but they’re not fighting a cultural blowback against their relationship, they’re fighting against some really weird, really dangerous stuff that doesn’t give a damn who they love.
Now I’m a straight white guy, so maybe I shouldn’t be saying a damn thing about representation, but when I see writers shying away from writing characters from marginalized communities, I cringe. You can write characters who just happen to be black. You can write characters that just happen to be gay. You can write about marginalized characters without trying to tell stories that aren’t yours to tell. Cohen is a straight, white woman, and she has peopled her universe with the same variety of people we see in the real world. It’s nice to see.
If you’re like me, you like reading about fictional worlds that are as deep and full of real people as the real world. If you’re like me, you like knowing that there are books in the world that will show kids from marginalized communities that they have a future—in space—and that they can be as utterly brilliant as any straight white guy ever was. If you’re like me, you should be reading these books.
P.S. as I write this, the first book—Derelict—is on sale for 99 cents on pretty much every platform. If you’re like me, you should go buy it and read it yourself or give it to a kid you love. That’s an affiliate link by the way, and a Books2Read universal link so you can use it to go to Amazon or B&N or wherever.