Brute Orbits, George Zebrowski

Harper Prism, 1998, 222 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105026-1

TITLE: Brute Orbits

AUTHOR: George Zebrowski

STATUS: Hardcover Science-Fiction Novel

SUMMARY OF PREMISE: In the near future, Earth has successfully brought several asteroids to Earth orbit in order to mine them. Once the precious core has been extracted, some bright guy has the idea of transforming them in habitats, stuffing them with prisoners and sending them away in ten, twenty, thirty-year long orbits before they come back to Earth. Of course, it’s not that difficult to make a “mistake” and send the asteroid for an even longer orbit.

SUMMARY OF PLOT: There isn’t much of a plot. The massive space and time frame covered makes it difficult to have a unique protagonist. So Brute Orbits follows a few prisoners and historians, each vignette trying to tell a facet of the story. In one series of linked chapters, a super-intelligent prisoner tries to manage his micro-society of fellow criminals as they head away from Earth. In another, a political dissident talks with other exiles until the asteroid’s indoor lights go dark. In another, a historian tries to piece together the history of the Rocks. These are pretty much the only three sustained stories; other passages feature characters we seldom see again.

SUMMARY OF THEMES: Zebrowski here attempts to use his premise as a vehicle for argumentation about the judicial system’s corrective branch. As with any work dealing at length with criminality from a serious perspective, Brute Orbits exhibits a dark and violent viewpoint. Unlike most of these other works, however, Brute Orbits strongly suggests that not all prisoners deserve their fate and that society -not to mention more specifically society’s elites- ultimately define and causes crime.

SUMMARY OF VIRTUES: Brute Orbits‘s premise is exceedingly clever, forcing us to contemplate virtually escape-proof prisons, and the realization of a “just throw’em away together” social phantasm. Zebrowski’s writing is also, with a few exception, quite readable. Some good scenes. Good grasp of the hard sciences. His argument that society is the biggest criminal is a provocative systemic self-examination on the level that SF does at its best.

SUMMARY OF FLAWS: Though other readers might disagree to the “flaw” designation, the “vignette-sequence” structure of Brute Orbits has its disadvantages. Probably the most important of those is the lack of attachment to characters. Without those, Zebrowski is hard-pressed to illustrate his ideas convincingly. Not only does Brute Orbits reads like a fix-up, but the stories of the fix-up are all interleaved with each other. It’s not only difficult to read as a whole, but doesn’t really convince. Unfortunately, Zebrowski’s charge that society-is-criminal really needed a good dose of sympathy and credibility. This is lacking.

VERDICT: Not worth buying in hardcover, and a risky choice in paperback given the wealth of competent storytelling out there. Readers intrigued by the strong premise should consider borrowing from the local library.

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