The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter
|The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A young girl growing up through the Cuban Missile Crisis is faced with time travellers with very personal links, in this emotive sci-fi thriller.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: September 2007|
|Publisher: Faber and Faber|
If you needed a clue that Stephen Baxter, well-known exponent of hard sci-fi, where he surely has to explain the most esoteric science fiction creations, has jumped genre to write for a younger audience, it's surely in the foreword, where he details pre-decimal coinage. What follows doesn't need much explanation, as it's all written with great clarity. I'm sure someone will want to film this for TV or the cinemas, and it's almost directed for you already, so evocative is the simple yet compelling writing.
Laura is stuck in the middle of a lot she doesn't understand. Her parents' marriage is breaking up, and so she's had to move back to Liverpool, where her mother's roots are. There's an American airman in the house, whom Mum knew during the war, but Dad's military work is keeping him from moving out. That work is coming to the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although Laura, of course, knows nothing of this.
Her new school is alien to Laura too - a much bigger, inner-city school than she has used before. She makes a couple of good friends quickly, but it's pretty much drop-outs support, by their own admission. However, there's something about her new teacher, Miss Wells. There's an air of her knowing what's happening - what will happen - and indeed Laura herself that's a bit spooky.
And what's with Miss Wells and another woman, bearing a strong family resemblance to Laura?
What follows is a very tightly-plotted thriller, featuring time travel as a primary sci-fi element, but the whole setting of October 1962 as a major selling point, and great characterisation throughout as a bonus.
There is a small element of things seeming over-simplified for the young reader - at the beginning, at least the American appears to be there merely for Baxter to point out there were only two television stations and no breakfast TV. But when you get past that, the cultural references, and indeed phraseology ("Oh, me mutton dagger!", as someone cries after a wound in the privates in a fight) only adds to a sense of realism and fully-realised world, that I can well imagine the young Baxter knowing from first hand.
For a science fiction writer of Baxter's renown however, it's unfortunate there's a glaring glitch in the time travel element. He drops a couple of lines of dialogue in regarding time paradoxes, which don't help when there's the Terminator Trouble later on. In that film, a visit by the future's robot inspires the building of the said robot - which in the initial run-through of time, could never have been inspired, created and sent back to do the inspiring - I hope that's clear. Here someone reads a phrase they couldn't have done as it must have been written before its impetus arrives.
This narked me a little, and that furrowed brow followed through the whole of the revelation of the various plots by the end. Without giving too much away, it seemed the greatest effect resulted by the least activity and least bravery from our heroine, which surely isn't the right way around?
Whatever my minor quibbles, I'm sure the writing, setting and characterisation will be very welcome for the target audience. There is a great variety in setting, mood and pace, with the whole cold war setting a very novel one. I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's Johnny series and the WWII setting that used, but this goes further in placing the reader as a fourteen-year-old girl in a quite alien setting, under threat from global elements and personal troubles.
I have just shaded a few small points off for the dropped-in exposition and forced cultural elements (and just because I don't fancy the Beatles being revered by another generation), and the time travel error. Those who are supposed to be reading this book will enjoy the MacGuffin of the mysterious Key, and recognise many elements of school life (the hitching up of skirts to appear mature, etc) and just engage with the thriller in a way that it didn't allow me. The face-down at the end comes with meaty issues of personality, responsibility and so on, and follows on from character-led action, and not drama for the sake of it.
I give the book four stars, but I predict a large audience will think I am being stingy. To those, I recommend the book without hesitation, and I'd like to thank the publishers for giving the Bookbag a copy to sample.
We've also enjoyed Xeelee: Vengeance by Stephen Baxter.
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