Grand Central Arena

by Ryk E. Spoor

Cover image

Series: Arenaverse #1
Publisher: Baen
Copyright: May 2010
ISBN: 1-4391-3355-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 671

Buy at Powell's Books

Ariane Austin is an unlimited space obstacle racing pilot, recruited at the start of the book for the first human test of a faster-than-light drive. She was approached because previous automated tests experienced very strange effects, if they returned at all. The drive seems to work as expected, but all AIs, even less-intelligent ones, stopped working while the drive was engaged and the probe was outside normal space. The rules of space obstacle racing require manual control of the ship, making Ariane one of the few people qualified to be a pilot.

Ariane plus a crew of another seven are assembled. They include the scientist who invented the drive in the first place, and a somewhat suspicious person named Marc DuQuesne. (Pulp SF fans will immediately recognize the reference, which makes the combination of his past secrets and the in-universe explanation for his name rather unbelievable.) But when the drive is activated, rather than finding themselves in the open alternate dimension they expected, they find themselves inside a huge structure, near a model of their own solar system, with all of their companion AIs silenced.

Ryk E. Spoor is better known to old Usenet people as Sea Wasp. After all these years of seeing him in on-line SF communities, I wanted to read one of his books. I'm glad I finally did, since this was a lot of fun. Grand Central Arena starts as a Big Dumb Object story, as the characters try to figure out why their shortcut dimension is filled with a giant structure, but then turns into a fun first contact story and political caper when they meet the rest of the inhabitants. The characterization is a bit slapdash and the quality of the writing isn't anything special, but the plot moves right along. I stayed happily lost in the book for hours.

As you might guess from the title, the environment in which the intrepid human explorers find themselves is set up to provoke conflict. That conflict has a complex set of rules and a complex system of rule enforcement. Figuring out both is much of the plot of this book. The aliens come in satisfyingly pulpish variety, and this story has a better excuse than most for the necessary universal translator (although I do have to note that none of the aliens act particularly alien). There are a lot of twisty politics and factions to navigate, a satisfying and intriguing alien guide and possible ally, political and religious factions with believable world views, a surprisingly interesting justification for humans being able to punch above their weight, a ton of juicy questions (only some of which get answered), and some impressively grand architecture. Spoor's set pieces don't do that architecture as much justice as, say, Iain M. Banks would, but he still succeeds in provoking an occasional feeling of awe.

One particular highlight is that the various alien factions have different explanations for why the Arena exists, encourage the humans to take sides, and are not easily proven right or wrong. Spoor does a great job maintaining a core ambiguity in the fight between the alien factions. The humans are drawn to certain allies, by preference or accident or early assistance, but those allies may well be critically and dangerously wrong about the nature of the world in which they find themselves. As befits a political and religious argument that has gone on for centuries, all sides have strong arguments and well-worn rebuttals, and humans have no special advantage in sorting this out. This is not how this plot element is normally handled in SF. I found it a refreshing bit of additional complexity.

The biggest grumble I had about this book is that Spoor keeps resorting to physical combat to resolve climaxes. I know the word "arena" is right there in the title of the book, so maybe I shouldn't have expected anything else. But the twisty politics were so much more fun than the detailed descriptions of weapons or RPG-style combat scenes in which I could almost hear dice rolling in the background. Spoor even sets up the rules of challenges so that they don't need to involve physical violence, and uses that fact a few times, but keeps coming back to technology-aided slug-fests for most of the tense moments. I think this would have been a more interesting book if some of those scenes were replaced with more political trickiness.

That said, the physical confrontations are in genre for old-school space opera, which is definitely what Grand Central Arena is. It has that feel of an E.E. "Doc" Smith book (which is exactly what Spoor was going for from the dedication), thankfully without the creepy gender politics. The primary protagonist is a woman (without any skeevy comments), Spoor is aware of and comfortable with the range of options in human sexuality other than a man and a woman, and at no point does anyone get awarded a woman for their efforts. He didn't completely avoid all gender stereotypes (all the engineers are men; the other women are the medic and the biologist), but it was good enough to me to not feel irritated reading it. For throwback space opera, that's sadly unusual.

If you're in the mood for something Lensman-like but with modern sensibilities, and you aren't expecting too much of the writing or the characterization, give Grand Central Arena a try. It's not great literature, but it's a solid bit of entertainment. (Just be warned that most of the secrets of the Arena are not revealed by the end of the book, and will have to wait for sequels.) I'll probably keep reading the rest of the series.

Followed by Spheres of Influence.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-12-17

Last modified and spun 2018-12-18