Interstellar Troublemaking: Cecil Castellucci's "Tin Star"
By Michael LevyMarch 28, 2014
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
CECIL CASTELLUCCI, who is the young adult and children’s book editor for this publication, is also the author of eleven YA novels of her own. Her new science fiction tale, Tin Star, which appears to be the first of a series, feels a bit like a Heinlein juvenile crossed, perhaps, with one of C. J. Cherryh’s blue-collar space station tales, both of which influences are definitely a good thing.
As the book opens fourteen-year-old Tula Bane is on layover on a rundown, not particularly hospitable space station called Yertina Feray . The Prairie Rose, the colony ship she’s traveling on has had mechanical difficulties, or so she and the other Children of Earth colonists bound for Beta Granade have been told by their charismatic leader, Brother Blue. Tula is a smart, inquisitive girl and, because of this, Brother Blue has made her his assistant, taking advantage of her rare ability to speak a bit of Universal Galactic to run messages to various aliens on the station, which has no other human inhabitants. As the colonists re-board to continue their journey, however, Tula notices that something is wrong. The ship’s entire stock of grain, meant for planting on Beta Granade, is still on the station’s loading dock, apparently forgotten. When she points this out to Brother Blue rather than thanking her, he leads her off to the side of the dock behind the grain containers and beats her bloody, leaving her for dead. Then, when the Prairie Rose departs, Brother Blue stays behind, ostensibly to finish up some important business and then return to Earth to begin preparations for another colony. It is perhaps no surprise, and no great spoiler, to reveal that the ship is soon reported lost with all hands in an explosion. Brother Blue has led a number of colonial expeditions before this one and it gradually becomes clear that he’s actually a charismatic monster, a serial mass murderer who takes the would-be colonists for all they have before disposing of them. The grain, we can assume, has already netted him a tidy profit.
The center of the novel, however, is Tula’s fight for survival. Stripped of her oxygen mask, barely able to breath and beaten nearly to death, she should be easy prey for any of the supposedly hostile, multi-species alien low lifes who frequent the space station’s docks. Fortunately, however, she is aided by two aliens, a police officer named Tournour and a criminal named Heckleck. With their help she survives her injuries and begins to make a place for herself on Yertina Feray.
Castellucci has developed a nicely complex intergalactic civilization to serve as background for Tula’s story. The galaxy, we discover, has many spacefaring species, and, shades perhaps of David Brin’s Startide Rising and sequels, they also have a very jealously guarded, vertically-structured society. There are a small number of Major Species, the most powerful aliens and the first into space, and then there are a much larger number of Minor Species (and, yes, both phrases are capitalized) of varying degrees of importance. Human beings haven’t even achieved Minor Species status yet, which requires the settlement of a certain minimum number of planets. Brother Blue’s Children of Earth colonies are, supposedly, part of the human effort to establish us on enough planets to qualify for Minor Species status, which will presumably provide certain legal protections and trade advantages. It’s all up hill though because the other species jealously guard the prime planetary real estate and will only offer Earth worlds for colonization that are minimally inhabitable. Moreover, the multi-species alien civilization is currently caught up in its own violent transformation, moving from a confederation of sorts to a more repressive and increasingly top-down Imperium. To make matters even worse, humans have gained a bad reputation throughout interstellar space as troublemaking wanderers. It seems like nobody who’s anybody likes people from Earth and this is particularly true on Yertina Feray, an off the beaten path relic circling an uninhabited, mined out planet of little apparent value to anyone.
At first, understanding the different alien species is difficult for Tula and, because we see things only through her limited first person narrative, it’s difficult for us as well. Both Heckleck and Tournour seem very reticent, though to a person of one of their species they may well be anything but. The former alien, a successful criminal and fixer, is the sort of person who has regular dealings with the police but never gets arrested. He gives Tula a job, at first out of what might be charity (although we’re never sure) and then as an increasingly competent assistant, using her to run messages and illegal goods of increasing value as she proves herself worthy. Eventually, with his help, she also begins to establish her own illegal business connections, trading hard to find commodities for favors and information, gradually making her way in the station’s complicated underground economy. She doesn’t grow rich, she’s still living in the station’s underbelly, but she does make a place for herself as the years pass, earning the respect of the locals, developing a network of customers and even making a few friends. Constable Tournour, however, remains an enigma. She runs into him much more regularly than chance would seem to indicate. Sometimes he shakes her down, sometimes he issues warnings, occasionally he even arrests her for minor offenses. Sometimes, though, he actually seems to be looking after her welfare as, for example, when he puts her in jail rather than allowing her to depart the station by volunteering to work for a shady labor recruiter.
Despite her growing competence as a citizen of the space station, Tula, having lost her mother and sister in the explosion of the colony ship, has only one real goal in life beyond survival: to kill Brother Blue. Everything she does is aimed at earning enough money to leave the station and find him. Her situation is made more complex, however, by three important events. Two representatives of the Imperium visit the station, possibly looking for her, and are soon murdered. Then her mentor, Heckleck is also murdered for reasons unknown. Finally, three more human teens, Els, Caleb and Reza, have been marooned on the space station, part of a rebellion against the alien Imperium and its Quisling government on Earth. The three events may or may not be connected. There’s still a lot of the book left though as Tula finds herself caught up in a complex series of events involving various powerbrokers’ attempts to jockey for position, not only on the station, but also in the Imperium. Further, Tula, who hasn’t seen another person from Earth in a long time, isn’t at all sure what to make of the three teens. Castellucci even manages to work up a bit of a Gulliver’s Travels vibe (or perhaps it’s a Left Hand of Darkness vibe) as, watching them from a distance, the girl is disgusted by the humans’ loud bad manners and lack of interspecies competence. We eventually discover that all three teens have separate personal and political agendas and that those agendas aren’t entirely nice. One of them even involves working for Brother Blue.
This is a good novel, primarily aimed, I would guess, at younger teens, though Amazon.com lists it as for twelve to seventeen year olds. Tula is a prickly, but sympathetic protagonist and Castellucci does a particularly strong job of exploring both her developing feelings of competence and her developing and fairly complex sexuality. A novelist writing for adults might have endowed Heckleck and Tournour with a bit more depth, but they’re still interesting alien characters with the capability of surprising us. If Brother Blue is a somewhat one dimensional monster, Els, Caleb and Reza are nicely differentiated. If all three seem to be possessed by unrealistic expectations and self-destructive obsessions, this is perhaps not all that surprising considering their ages and situation. Tula might easily have been just as incompetent and self-destructive if she hadn’t found mentors on the station. Also impressive is the multi-species society of Yertina Feray and I look forward to exploring it more fully in the sequel.
Michael Levy teaches science fiction and children’s literature at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. A past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, he is currently a co-editor at the peer-reviewed journal Extrapolation. The author of three books and many articles, book chapters, and book reviews, he is currently working on The Cambridge Introduction to Children's Fantasy, co-authored with Farah Mendlesohn, to be published by Cambridge University Press.
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