(cover image from Fantastic Fiction)
The first manned test flight of a faster-than-light starship ends up with ship and crew inside an enormous alien construction. At first, it appears to be a scale model of our solar system, enclosed by a shell. But exploration reveals that's only a tiny fraction of the whole, a construct which extends for light years and contains thousands of alien species, all competing for status and power.
The eight humans quickly make some powerful enemies, as they struggle to learn the complex rules of this cutthroat society. It turns out that every technological species ends up in the Arena, the same way this human ship did, when they discover FTL travel. But humanity is the youngest faction of First Emergents by hundreds of years, and they must overcome incredible odds to survive, to defend their home territory, and to prove that humans deserve respect.
Ryk E. Spoor was the coauthor, with Eric Flint, of Boundary, an entertaining story about our first trip to Mars (following the discovery of alien ruins on Phobos). Those two also co-authored the short fantasy novel, Diamonds Are Forever (in the book, Mountain Magic), which, to be honest, didn't impress me. But this is the first story I've read from Spoor by himself.
Grand Central Arena is a huge book, almost 700 pages long, but it's a surprisingly quick read. It was entertaining enough to easily hold my interest. And the setting was really neat. The total construct of the Arena is light-years in size and contains about 5,000 other intelligent species. Well, I'm a sucker for aliens, and it's lots of fun to see humanity kicking butt, surprising all the older, more powerful, more scientifically advanced factions that are constantly competing for status. It's not at all plausible, of course, but it's certainly entertaining.
Unfortunately, the characterization could be better. Even with only eight crew members, most of them stay firmly in the background. The novel focuses on two or three who are geniuses and pretty much supermen. I don't know how some authors can create wonderful, appealing, sympathetic characters, I really don't. But Spoor just doesn't seem to have that knack.
The book is dedicated to E. E. "Doc" Smith, the "father of space opera," who wrote the Lensman and Skylark series in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the characters in Grand Central Arena is even named for the super-villain in the later series, so clearly Spoor means this to be a tribute. And really, the book reminds me of that kind of early science fiction - the poor characterization, the overly-powerful heroes, the triumphant rise of humanity that seems to be only our due.
I like the idea behind this book, the alien construction (built millions, perhaps billions, of years ago by some unknown power) that brings together every technological species in the universe and pits them against each other. It's a mind-blowing setting. It's got room for every manner of strange alien. And it's got human beings as the newcomers, who must desperately use their wits to survive. It's lots of fun.
But David Brin did this far better in his Uplift Universe series. His characters weren't all supermen, but they were admirable and very effective. They were really likable, too, and they seemed real. Grand Central Arena just doesn't come off very well compared to that. Admittedly, most books would struggle in comparison to Brin's best work. It might not be very fair of me to compare Grand Central Arena to Hugo Award winners and true classics of the genre.
Nevertheless, this book could have been a lot better. Yes, it's still entertaining, if you don't take it seriously. And, in fact, I'll probably buy the sequel, if one is written. It was mind-boggling, and it was good clean fun. I really hate to seem so critical, but I can't help but be disappointed, just because it could have been so much better. The idea was great, but IMHO, the execution - especially in respect to the characters - was just average.