I really didn’t think it could get any better than this.
But as with all tales of happiness, there’s always a floating cloud of crap over our heads just waiting for the touch of gravity to send it falling.
Axel is a not a typical teen, but he's not a-typical. Hundreds years in the future, he lives on a massive space station in orbit above Earth. His parents are people of influence and importance on the station, and he's being raised to join them. But that's not at all what he wants. He's a middling student, at best, all he really wants to do is make art and fall in love -- hopefully with one particular girl from his classes. Maybe play a few video games (they're far more immersive than anything we can possibly come up with -- and are called something else, but they're essentially what I used to play on an Intellivision).
Helen doesn't have his artistic inclinations or abilities, but she shares his political apathy, his love of video games, his odd sense of humor and other interests (I was tempted to say that she shares his obsession with her appearance, but that's not entirely fair to her). Her family is historically (and currently) a pretty Big Deal on Earth. Her immediate family is on this space station in part to work on behalf of the people on Earth. I don't have as strong of a sense of her as I do Axel -- at least not one I could express. That's primarily on me -- but it's also part of the book, it's Axel's story, and we know him much better.
The book begins spending a little time with their courtship after setting the stage -- it's very easy to get caught up in the happiness and forget about that floating cloud of crap. Then they hit a pretty major road-bump -- and then just when you get caught up in their clever ways around their obstacles, life for everyone on the station plunges into chaos.
Some bar owner once said, "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of ... little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" with an eye to the horrors of World War II around him. Axel and Helen have a bigger conflict, and more suffering, around them -- and their problems are even smaller in comparison. But that won't stop you from being drawn to their plight (and their joy, determination, and courage, too). What these two (and their friends) go through is enough to derail relationships, families, movements -- and while you'd understand why both of them would bail on their romance, you can't help but root for these crazy kids.
It would've been understandable, and so very easy, to turn the parents into the villains of the piece -- even just one set. But Horner resisted that, and even has Axel realizing they're all just doing what they think is right and best -- even if that's diametrically opposed to what their children want/believe.
This isn't technically YA, but it's YA-friendly. Maybe even MG-friendly, come to think of it. It's suitable for SF readers of all ages, let's just say. Horner writes like the best SF writers used to in a way that's approachable and appealing to all audiences. I wish more did that. I could say a lot about the science of the space station -- and the cultures created by it, both in orbit and on the ground; or the politics; or the technology; the human biology . . . basically the SF-ness of it. I'm not going to, because of time, space required -- and frankly, the human elements, the characters are what counts.
I wasn't that sure this book was going to work for me, but I'm glad I gave it a chance, because this thing won me over (pretty quickly, I should add) -- it had to be Axel and his way of looking at life that drew me in and then pretty much everything else kept me there. It's hopeful, almost optimistic (given the harshness of the reality of humanity's situation, that's an accomplishment), you can enjoy huge swaths of it. It's a love story, it's the beginning of a SF epic, and you will fall under its spell if you give it half a chance. There are some big ideas here, but it's a pretty small story, where people and their feelings are more important (and more interesting) than conflict, technological wonders, and everything else.