Cherryh, C. J. Heavy Time.

NY: Warner, 1991.

This one is set in the author’s “Merchanter” future universe (the setting for Downbelow Station and Cyteen), but it’s very early in that era and all the action is within our own solar system. But that’s plenty of room for the story, as it turns out.

In fact, the story is set entirely in the Asteroid Belt, where small prospecting mining ships hunt for ore-rich rocks that can be sold to Earth Company, refined locally (out there), and the resulting products sling-shotted back down the gravity well by mass-drivers to Earth and its close-in space stations, where a fleet is being built to fight the break-away colonies around other stars. In the rest of the series in this future, we’ve mostly seen this conflict from the other side; here, the POV is very much that of the earthbound government that simply doesn’t — or can’t — understand just how alien the psychology of the new outposts of humanity has become. But the wild-and-wooly Belt miner culture has become increasingly strait-jacketed by the corporate controlling powers — which also, of course, opens the way, as it always does, for corruption.

Cherryh always tells her universe-spanning stories by focusing on the personal experiences of a handful of individuals, and the key player here is Paul Dekker, pilot of a drifting mining vessel that has suffered, . . . well, let’s call it an “accident,” so as not to give away the plot. His partner (who supplied all the financing) is dead and Dekker is rescued by another ship crewed by Morrie Bird, Earth-born and the oldest Belt miner still working, and Ben Pollard, born in the Belt and very much a product of not-Earth thinking and morality. Bird’s priority is to rescue the pilot of the derelict; Ben’s is to establish a salvage claim on the other ship, of which Dekker is no longer in control. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that Dekker is quite sane after his experiences.

Cherryh has always been very good at detailing original characters, but she also has a knack for inventing jargon and styles of expression that are common and everyday to those who use them but to which the reader will have to pay close attention to puzzle them out. The “heavy time” of the title, for instance, refers to the period spent by a returning mining crew on-station, under fractional gravity, after months in null-g. And Dekker himself was a “rab” at an earlier stage of his life, as were many of those who fled Earth for the Belt. After awhile, you’ll realize that that’s shorthand for “rabble” — the ordinary people the all-controlling Earth Company despises but also fears. And that will tell you something about the roots of the colonial revolt that threatens Earth’s economy and, potentially, its existence. Like all her books, you will want to take your time and read this one on several levels, even when the action becomes fast and furious — and it will. And then, of course, you should have the sequel, Hellburner, close at hand.

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