Young Rusty has discovered a dead body in the disposal vat on the colony space station…but no one believes him except his earth-bound grandpa, and his grandpa’s “old friend” – the legendary genius scientist who basically invented most of the space station.
Dead bodies…space…check, check. I enjoyed it as a tween/teen, and I enjoyed it now…though I also noticed more of the author’s secular, exploratory worldview peeking through.
Rusty: Teen, Researcher, Detective…Talking Point
The first thing that struck me about our teen protagonist is something I missed when I was a teen myself.
The voice is masterfully done – actually sounding like a real sixteen-year-old might – and the first-person perspective acts like he’s recording these events for posterity.
Thus, when Rusty opens his book by describing the colony space station he lives in floating about the Earth, he notes as an aside:
I realize we all know these things, but my grandfather [an author] “keeps reminding me that just because we all know something now, it doesn’t mean people will know it ten years from now. He says I should never underestimate the human capacity for ignorance, and if I want people to read this book ten years from now, I’d better make everything clear.”
Cute way of introducing us into this world while still maintaining a realistic perspective for the characters in the world.
But…did you pick up on what I picked up on?
There’s a slight condescension, the hint of a “some people are just so ignorant” – and this permeates the whole story.
This fits right in with the thesis of the story.
After reading the story with an adult perspective, the “message” of this little novel could well be phrased as: “Smart people should be allowed to ask any questions/study any problem they want to.”
All fine and good, as far as it goes…but how far does it go? And besides that, Rusty repeatedly complains about stuffy gate-keepers, thick-headed authority figures…basically anyone standing in the way of Science! because of foolish misgivings.
Interesting for a “scientific researcher” to be so dismissive of other viewpoints…
(I’m also never a fan of the “adults don’t take me seriously!” trope.)
Aside from that…
Rusty is a great protagonist. He has normal, understandable faults – that actually tie in to the plot. He sees problems, and digs around for a solution. If someone is in trouble, he races to help (against the better judgement of people who have that).
One of the biggest elements in my original read was his soft romance with a girl he meets in the course of his adventures. Now – as then – I appreciate how it’s crafted realistically (an awkward yet hormonal boy wants a suspicious yet intelligent girl his own age to like him)…while also not pushing it beyond where the plot could take it (they do run off in the middle of the night to do investigating by themselves, but in the last chapter they’re about to have only their first date).
The first-person record is also handled expertly, with little asides from time to time as Rusty explains things we need to understand this part of the story, or reminds us that he wasn’t thinking clearly in the stress of the situation, so don’t be too hard on him.
Mystery and Smarts
Part of the difficulty with writing – especially writing mysteries – is making your characters look smart, not just claim to be smart.
For having so many PhDs in the story – and placing so much of the action on a floating research lab – the author does a pretty good job of painting a picture of actual scientists doing actual research (test tubes, microscopes, computer banks, literal lab mice).
This goes for the characters, too.
The legendary reclusive genius – who helps Rusty investigate the disappearing body in the disposal vat – is introduced to us with an ego the size of the moon…and the smarts to match.
After telling us this, however, the author then goes on to show this character making logical deductions, extrapolating from incomplete data, and doing other mental detective work. With just the right amount of detail, we can watch the genius being a genius without needing a Robert-Ludlum-sized conspiracy to unravel.
As for the actual murder…
I can’t say too much without getting into spoilers and a discussion of the Science! theme…
But I can say the villain’s motive isn’t super strong or clear.
Most of the side characters are fleshed out enough for their roles – and some of them border on the complex – but while the villain has touches of nuance, they don’t have enough screen-time to really explore why they do what they do.
On the other hand, they aren’t laughably “evil for the sake of evil,” nor a “twist villain for the sake of shocking the audience.” The clues that lead to the mastermind are subtle, but there…especially on this re-read.
Except for one forehead-slapping incident, the teen-detectives in the book act pretty smart.
Sure, they run off in the middle of the night to do investigating, but when they get in trouble they at least try to call for help. (They apparently don’t remember that doors open from either side, though.)
I have a couple other quibbles (especially about the “twist”), but I don’t need to go into them here.
Everything Comes Down to Science!
The author clearly had fun building his dream colony, where everything is recycled down to the last atom (except human bodies, which get sentimental burials-in-space), every occupant pulls their weight (whether in scientific research, supporting the running of the station, or both), and everyone has been background- and personality-checked for maximum harmony.
A big thing in the beginning of the book is that the station has no police force – just the entirely different “Office of Dispute Management” – so Rusty doesn’t know who to report a murder to.
And yet, for all that the colonists were screened to avoid “explosive personality combinations” (yes, really) and live in a rational, scientific paradise…Rusty still gets in heated arguments with his parents. Some individuals are still skirting the rules – and willing to commit violence to cover it up.
For all their advanced technology and scientific exploration, the characters still yell at each other, make mistakes, and have all the real, human problems people have always had.
I’d call this deliberate…except for the novel’s thesis.
I think the author was just too good. He knew what human beings were like, and so wrote them with all the flaws and weaknesses we have in real life.
Meanwhile, his intellectual, humanist worldview insists that humans can improve ourselves, screen out “explosive personality combinations” (unless a couple has a kid they’re not compatible with…), and push the boundaries of the physical – and moral – world.
Rusty closes out his little book by insisting scientists should be allowed to “follow any question,” no matter where it leads.
Even after watching one scientist use gene-splicing to accidentally create a deadly rage virus…realizing there’s a black market for scientific discoveries – and genius scientists…
Even after seeing all the ways this could go wrong, Rusty still thinks that “repressing” the scientific mind only encourages more risky behavior in the pursuit of the answers.
Are people more likely to create human clones if you tell them it’s too morally risky to do so? Will some people just gene-splice, no matter what you say, so you might as well let them gene-splice “safely” – in the open?
In some ways, these are two different questions:
Should Bureaucracy A dictate what Scientist B does in his lab?
If they’re paying for it, absolutely. Otherwise, my libertarian side says, “No way.”
But – Are there some things that shouldn’t be explored? Some questions that shouldn’t be answered?
Are clones human? Or replacement-organs-on-demand? If we can protect some babies from some disease by altering their genes, does that give us the right to change their actual DNA – theirs, and that of any kids they might have…through all time?
My Christian, trans-temporal worldview tells me, “No. Some things should not be grasped. Some answers should not be given.”
God has put a lot of things into the creation to help us and heal us…but we shouldn’t pursue those things beyond their proper place. Whether we’re chasing Science! because we want to see new things, or because we want to cheat death and suffering, we must be pursuing Jesus first and foremost.
Imagine if Adam had been content with not being God.
Find Answers for Yourself
This little novel is about as squeaky-clean as they come. There’s some light descriptions of death and decay, and some even lighter description of Rusty’s adolescent crush on the girl.
The science is solid – but not heavy enough to scare off non-nerds.
Really, the most problematic thing about it is the worldview…and we should be discussing that with our kids about every book we read.
So – whether you’re a Christian homeschool teen looking for something fun (that you won’t be embarrassed to read)…or you’re a parent looking to keep your voracious reader busy with things that will feed his brain…this is a solid story with decent characters, a mystery that will engage the brain, a dash of outer space – and enough questions about the morality of Science! that will keep the whole family talking at the dinner table!
Space Station ICE-3 is available on Amazon, eBay, and Albris (though they don’t have an image or description, just the metadata). Finding old, discontinued books is hard, apparently! Here is its Goodreads page.