Lifeline, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Bantam Spectra, 1990, 460 pages, C$5.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-28787-7

Popular fiction often depends on a common, unspoken set of assumptions. Most readers never notice them until they’re stripped away. While Anderson and Beason’s Lifeline is far from being an atypical piece of hard-SF, prepare to be surprised at some of the early plot twists. This is a novel that doesn’t start by playing nice.

One of those expectations is that heroes should behave, well, heroically. A second should be that “our side” (ie; usually Americans) should also be virtuous. Yet another would be that everything means something; audacious stunts should pay off.

In the opening pages of Lifeline, the hammer falls repeatedly.

The narrative starts with a global thermonuclear war. But don’t worry; this will be the least of our problems. Indeed, the novel merely uses the death of a few hundred million people as an excuse to set up a survival story in Earth orbit; cut off from the home planet for the foreseeable future, the four human settlements in space have to co-operate in order to survive. Each has something that the others need. Are they going to be able to settle their differences in time?

It won’t be a simple endeavour. Aboard the Corporate American station Orbitech, one manager panics, grabs his sick daughter and hijacks a space shuttle. His destination? The Moonbase—which is incidentally headed by a weak director more interested in science than administration. The manager’s attempt fails; the shuttle crashes, destroying it and killing the pilot. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough of a guilt trip, his daughter is also killed in the crash.

The unpleasantness doesn’t stop there, as the Soviet Station Kibalchich sets in motion a doomsday weapon plan. Aboard the Philippine Aguinaldo station, there’s enough biotechnology to feed the two other stations, if only some politicians didn’t feel it was pay-back time for decades of superpower oppression. (Oh, and a technician is killed when one of the protagonist makes a stupid mistake. Lifeline is an equal-opportunity narrative guilt machine.)

Naturally, it gets better. Faced with starvation, Orbitech’s deputy director spaces a hundred of the most inefficient people. Later, a mob of survivors knifes the director of the station in the cafeteria. Don’t worry; there’s a public execution later on.

All of this happens in the first hundred pages of the book, which sets up quite a tone for the rest of the book. It lets up somewhat (another accidental death seemingly caused by one protagonist is explained to be no fault of his own) but the uneasy feeling remains through the whole book.

Which is a good thing, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much that’s memorable in Lifeline. It’s competent Hard-SF, with sophisticated technical details, adequate characters and average plotting. True to the ethos of Hard-SF, it basically puts the protagonist against a huge problem, then makes it worse until they find the mixture of technological gadgetry and audacious recklessness that will make everything all right.

On a geopolitical level -never the strength of Hard-SF writers, but I digress-, the presence of the Philippines in space isn’t particularly convincing, even as a token of bribery from the Americans to a vacillating ally. You’d think that space would be at such a premium, and at such value, that America would rather give up a few of the Marshall Islands before handing over a space station.

Bah, never mind that; Lifeline is a good fast read, but it’s nothing special nor particularly original. That is, if you discount the general nastiness of the first third of the book, where a nuclear war seems to be the least disturbing element of the story.

First published in 1990, chances are good that Lifeline is now comfortably out of print. It’s not particularly worth hunting down, but it can hit the spot if ever you crave hard-SF with a slightly bitter edge.

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