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Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publishers.

Dear Mike,

Did you know this is the novel of yours I’ve read the most often? Yes, and recommended the most often too, because to me it is like a clear glass of water, it’s very obvious who needs this book, and the answer is: most people, most of the time.

It turns out that not everyone agrees on the clear glass of water thing, Mike. A lot of other people seem to think it’s more like a milkshake, rich but opaque. You heard that a lot before you went, I bet, and here’s a new introduction from Francis Spufford saying it again: that you scarcely tell us what’s going on here. This confuses me. You hardly do anything but tell us what’s going on. Sometimes you are telling us five or six things going on all in the same paragraph. He also says–and don’t get me wrong, it’s quite a nice introduction and I’m grateful that they had him write it–that “It’s like eavesdropping on a rich, puzzling, clearly urgent conversation between strangers.” But Matt isn’t a stranger, Mike. You wrote him our friend. Our angry, confused, still figuring things out young friend. But still. From the angry start, Matthias Ronay is no stranger to me.

(Mr. Spufford also says of the ending that you “had a promise to keep to Heinlein,” and this I think is not quite right. The promise you received was from Heinlein. The promise you had to keep was to us. To the people who were basically Matt Ronay’s age when Growing Up Weightless came out. Or possibly to the people who are Matt’s age reading it now.)

The thing that struck me anew reading this in 2022, Mike, is how carefully you gave us xenophobia in a form that your readers would accept and sympathize with, only to move us, with Matt, to seeing how wrong it is, how wrong it always is. Earth people! Slammers, who could not look down on them, who could not be annoyed with them! Some days it seems like everyone who’s ever annoyed me is from Earth! But then, up close and at the full bore of xenophobia, suddenly that justification seems flimsy, disappears completely. Suddenly there is the full horror of watching people who had always been decent to you be quite otherwise to someone else, and feeling nearly powerless to stop them. Oh. Oh, I hope that gets somewhere it needs to go. And soon, Mike, we’ve been needing it even more since you left.

In the very beginning of the story-within-the-story that is the teenagers’ LARP, you put the line, “Some people always cheered when the body dropped.” And isn’t that just like you, Mike, to put bits of your theme right there front and center. To say: here it is, look at what I’m showing you. A clear glass of water, it’s right there. We can’t even say it’s sneaky because it was in a teenagers’ game, because you, of all people, took both teenagers and games seriously. What you didn’t do was take them out of their own context. And threaded through all of this the games are part of how people work, and how people learn. And they are night and day different from the gamification we’re seeing now, and oh how I wonder what you’d have thought of Adrian Hon’s book, of all the ways gamification has crept in. I want to ask you whether you think it gamification undermines games. I’ll put it on the list, I guess.

It’s not a long book. But there’s so much here, the water supply on the moon and how we have moments with our friends before the ancient enemy, entropy, sends us flying in different directions, how we know who is our own people, why we get it wrong sometimes, what we sacrifice and what we discover later that we shouldn’t have. And also: lots of scenes of teenagers having fun and genuinely liking each other, on Luna. On the moon. It’s a bit like the argument I had with someone who was very very not you about Tooth and Claw, where they were saying it wasn’t really a book about dragons and I was insisting that what made it good was that it was all those other things through being a book about dragons. This would not be the book it is about every other topic if it wasn’t mostly a book about teenagers playing games on the Moon.

And finally, at the ending, just where I thought I was done crying about the little lines you left us in this book, there is Sonya telling Matt: “‘That–doing your work as well as you know it can be done, whatever less someone else may expect–that is what will keep you sound in yourself, Matt. That is what life is for.'” Oh, my friend. Well. We’ll try, okay? We’ll try.

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