Spheres of Influence

by Ryk E. Spoor

Cover image

Series: Arenaverse #2
Publisher: Baen
Copyright: November 2013
ISBN: 1-4516-3937-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 576

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Spheres of Influence is a direct sequel to Grand Central Arena, which introduces the world background and is also a much better book. There is a detailed recap of the previous volume (thank you!) and a summary of things that happened between the volumes (that was odd), so it's easy to refresh your memory, but there's no point in reading this book if you've not read the first one.

In this series, Spoor is explicitly writing a throw-back space adventure inspired by E.E. "Doc" Smith and similar SF from the 1920s to the 1950s. Grand Central Arena was the discovery and exploration story, which in my opinion is where that literary tradition is at its strongest. Spheres of Influence veers into a different and less appealing part of that tradition: the moment when the intrepid space explorer is challenged by the ignorant Powers That Be at home, who don't understand the importance of anything that's happening.

Captain Ariane Austin and her crew made a stunning debut into the Arena, successfully navigated its politics (mostly via sheer audacity and luck), and achieved a tentatively strong position for humanity. However, humanity had never intended them to play that role. There isn't much government in Spoor's (almost entirely unexplained) anarcho-libertarian future, but there is enough for political maneuvering and the appointment of a more official ambassador to the Arena who isn't Ariane. But the Arena has its own rules that care nothing about human politics, which gives Ariane substantial leverage to try to prevent Earth politicians from making a mess of things.

This plot could be worse. Unlike his source material, Spoor is not entirely invested in authoritarian politics, and the plot resolution is a bit friendlier to government oversight than one might expect. (It's disturbing, though, that this oversight seems to consist mostly of the military, and it's not clear how those people are selected.) But the tradition of investing vast powers in single people of great moral character is one of the less defensible tropes of early American SF, and Spoor chooses to embrace it to an unfortunate degree. Clearing out all the bureaucratic second-guessing to let the honorable person who has stumbled across vast power make all the decisions is a type of simplistic politics with a long, bad history in US fiction. The author can make it look like a good idea by yanking hard on the scales; Ariane makes all the right decisions because she's the heroine and therefore of course she does. I was unsettled, in this year of 2021, by the book's apparent message that her major failing is her unwillingness to consolidate her power.

This isn't the only problem I had with this book. Before we get to the political maneuvering, the plot takes a substantial digression into the Hyperion Project.

The Hyperion Project showed up in the first book as part of the backstory of one of the characters. I'll omit the details to avoid spoilers, but in the story it functioned as an excuse to model a character directly on E.E. "Doc" Smith characters. The details never seemed that interesting, but as background it was easy to read past, and the character in question was still moderately enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the author was more invested in this bit of background than I was. Spheres of Influence introduces four more characters from the same project, including Wu Kong, a cliched mash-up of numerous different Monkey King stories who becomes a major viewpoint character. (The decision to focus on a westernized, exoticized version of a Chinese character didn't seem that wise to me.) One problem is that Spoor clearly thinks Wu Kong is a more interesting character than I do, but my biggest complaint is that introducing these new characters was both unnecessary and pulled the story away from the pieces I was interested in. I want to read more about the Arena and its politics, alien technology, and awesome vistas, not about some significantly less interesting historical human project devoted to bringing fictional characters to life.

And that's the third problem with this book: not enough happens. Grand Central Arena had a good half-dozen significant plot developments set among some great sense-of-wonder exploration and alien first contact. There are only two major plot events in Spheres of Influence, both are dragged out with unnecessary description and posturing, and neither show us much that's exciting or new. The exploration of the Arena grinds nearly to a halt, postponing the one offered bit of deep exploration for the third book. There are some satisfying twists and turns in the bits of plot we do get, but nothing that justifies nearly 600 pages.

This is not a very good book, and huge step down from the first book of the series. In its defense, it still offers the sort of optimistic (and, to be honest, simplistic) adventure that I was looking for after reading a book full of depressing politics. It's hard not to enjoy the protagonists taking audacious risks, revealing hidden talents, and winning surprising victories. But I wanted the version with more exploration, more new sights, less authoritarian and militaristic politics, and less insertion of fictional characters.

Also, yes, we know that one of the characters is an E.E. "Doc" Smith character. Please give the cliched Smith dialogue tics a rest. All of the "check to nine decimal places" phrases are hard enough to handle in Smith's short and fast-moving books. They're agonizing in a slow-moving book three times as long.

Not recommended, although I'm still invested enough in the setting that I'll probably read the third book when I'm feeling in the mood for some feel-good adventure. It appears to have the plot developments I was hoping would be in this one.

Followed by Challenges of the Deeps.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-02-14

Last modified and spun 2021-02-15