A Tunnel in the Sky

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Up Against It
by Laura J. Mixon (M. J. Locke)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 24, 2022

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The links above and the image to the right are for the new reprint from Tor Essentials, but I read the original hardcover from 2011, which had been published under the pseudonym of M. J. Locke. As far as I've been able to determine it's their only novel to appear under that name, along with just one short story. Everything else is as by Mixon. I've had the hardcover for several years, but it was unread until I learned of the new edition. The reprint came out April 26, and I had intended to read it by then, but other things got in the way. My comments are solely about the original, the cover image of which I will provide below. I have no idea if there have been edits and revisions, but I did spot some typos, and at least one instance of exposition repeated verbatim within the same sequence, which should have been edited out or rephrased. There may also be some updates to the science aspects.

Mixon is a chemical and environmental engineer, disciplines effectively utilized for several parts of the plot. If you've been reading SF for a while it's easy to see echoes of other writers' style or common plot elements, whether or not they were a direct influence on the author in question. My first thought, mainly because it's set on an inhabited asteroid several hundred years into the future, was about The Expanse, except this came out about three months before the first novel in that sequence. The asteroid is 25 Phocaea, largest of a group in the inner region of the belt. It is stony instead of metal-rich, so it hasn't been mined other than for building materials for those who live and work there. Prospectors seek out other asteroids with richer veins of other elements, many of them establishing semi-permanent bases to protect their claims. 25 Phocaea is home to the governmental agencies of the group, some refining of materials, as well as being a convenient shipping port. Other plot elements are similar to another sub-genre, cyberpunk, as well as people who go in for gene-splicing and severe body modifications; multiple arms or legs, scales rather than skin, wings, etc. That group is known as the Viridians. One of them plays an instrument that reminded me of Mouse's sensory-syrynx from Delany's Nova, although Thondu's instrument is more complicated and has multiple functions. Some, including the main protagonist, have minor body alterations, such as surgery to make their feet act more like hands, and their husband has had visual enhancements to see in low light conditions, and across a wider range of the spectrum. It's a society made up of multiple ethnic groups, many of which have inter-married, several different levels of social hierarchy, a complex industrial base, and conflicts between authority and individualism. Plus a few villains.

If that's not enough, Mixon throws in a major sub-plot about artificial intelligences, although they are referred to as artificial sapients. Some minor sapients are used in robotics, but a type they all fear would be a self-generated, self-replicating, "feral" sapient. There had been others of that type in the past, but they had been quarantined within the computer systems and destroyed or extracted. Another has appeared, possibly more complex than any previously encountered. That's where Thondu's instrument comes in, to attempt communication with the feral sapient, utilizing a language known as Tonal_Z. Was the feral sapient involved in the industrial accident that occurs early in the book, or was that the result of deliberate human sabotage, or merely the actions of a depressed, suicidal individual? The main character is Jane Navio, Resource Commissioner for the colony. She had served in that capacity for nearly thirty years, but the latest investigation might unravel her career if she can't solve it in time. Not only was major equipment damaged and several people killed, spillover from the disaster destroyed the latest ice haul. If another ice source is not found or negotiated soon, their water supply will be depleted, as well as their ability to generate oxygen.

Whether you read the original novel or the reprint, I can recommend this for the exciting narrative, complex human and social relationships, and sensitive portrayal of alternate points of view. The latter encompasses individual freedoms, sexuality and gender, and spiritual issues. I was particularly moved by the quandary faced by Jane's husband Xuan, a sincere Buddhist and pacifist, forced to use violence in defense of himself and others. In the end he goes off on a prospecting journey, which was likely more of a spiritual quest to deal with his guilt. I felt there were problems with some stilted dialog, and the pace was thrown off by switching back and forth between characters in different locations. That was necessary of course, but in several instances they would have been more effective in a different order. The story takes place within just a few days, five at the most I believe, but there is so much action it feels much longer. Another thing that prolonged Jane's investigation was both her and other people's inability to connect the dots, and times when they didn't share necessary information. Xuan is sure he had heard a person's name before, but the context doesn't hit him until it's too late. Several other occurrences of that between Jane and other investigators, between her and Xuan, along with various others. But those are only minor criticisms. The bulk of the book is well-written and thought-provoking. I can only assume the new edition is just as exciting, and maybe much improved. There were several hints of things that would come after this, things I would love to read, but no sequel yet. Maybe with the reprint more story will be forthcoming. I hope that is the case.


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Laura J. Mixon (M. J. Locke)

Original: 3/15/11
Reprint: 4/26/22

2012 Tiptree Honor List

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