Brute Orbits

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It is the twenty-first century. Suffering from global warming and overpopulation, Earth is opening the solar system to industrialization. One of the largest growth industries - "corrections" - capitalizes on the opportunity, sending convicts to mine asteroids diverted into near-Earth orbits. Like the condemned digging their own graves, the convicts hollow out their own prisons, as the mined-out shells become deep-space cell blocks. Then an administrative genius realizes that the asteroid prisons can be inserted ...
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It is the twenty-first century. Suffering from global warming and overpopulation, Earth is opening the solar system to industrialization. One of the largest growth industries - "corrections" - capitalizes on the opportunity, sending convicts to mine asteroids diverted into near-Earth orbits. Like the condemned digging their own graves, the convicts hollow out their own prisons, as the mined-out shells become deep-space cell blocks. Then an administrative genius realizes that the asteroid prisons can be inserted into solar orbits, timed to return to near-Earth space when terms run out. This not only adds further security, it removes the problem of abuse by guards, since they are no longer needed. Human rejects endure the black vise of interstellor space-time - soft bodies in hard shells, surviving along open orbits, free to live and reproduce as they wish, to seek what law they can amongst themselves, never to return.... But as Earth's societies recover and prosper, attitudes toward crime and punishment change. The sky's constant reproach spurs a sense of sympathy - and curiosity - about what has happened in these "brute orbits." When an advanced propulsion system makes it possible to overtake the scattered habitats, a courageous team of social scientists sets out to go where no free human has gone before. What they discover about this lost humanity is both provocative and moving.
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Editorial Reviews

Howard Hendrix
Zebrowski's meditation on human individual and social behavior (and misbehavior) gives full weight to the complexity of the issues it dicusses, and still manages ti tekk a cnetury-spaning story. Highly recommended for those readers who - like this reviewer - don't mind a heacy dose of philosophical speculation in their speculative fiction.
New York Review of Science Fiction
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like his previous tales of technocratically engineered futures (Macrolife; Stranger Suns; etc.), Zebrowski's latest evokes the pioneering SF of social philosopher Olaf Stapledon. But this boldly speculative new novel also suffers from the claustrophobic effects of trying to wrestle provocative ideas into cramped quarters. In the 21st century, Earth incarcerates its undesirables in mined-out asteroids launched into new orbits for the duration of their sentences. "This use of distance as a better prison wall" is more than just an ingenious application of technology to the penal system: it's also a convenient trick for disposing of the socially misfit, since orbits are "accidentally" miscalculated to prevent their return. The narrative follows the histories of several of these "rocks" as their prisoners fight, unite and ultimately set out to create superior, self-contained cultures free of the taint of earthly ways. Individual asteroids house specific groups of offenders, ranging from hardened convicts to sexual deviants, juvenile delinquents and unwanted foreigners, but it's hard to tell them apart, since the representatives of each speak in the same monotonous voice of the social studies lecturer. Burdened with having to illustrate the novel's central thesis--that the criminals whom society casts out are reflections of its own sickness, and a key to its cure--the characters rarely rise above the level of abstraction. Zebrowski argues his points with conviction, but, like the asteroid prisons he imagines, the vehicle for his critique is very distant and just a bit hollow. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061058073
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Pages: 342
  • Product dimensions: 4.24 (w) x 6.84 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Rocks
These brute orbits, along whose ever-lengthening ways so much humanity was exiled, were a reproach to each generation as it looked skyward, day or night, and knew that every direction was a receding prison of human outcasts whose guilt was measured by their distance from the Sun. Although invisible except to sensitive detectors able to see the burning beacons, these islands of human skylife loomed larger even as time threw them farther into space.
One hundred years out, the transgressors against their own kind were long consumed, and the habitats were now home to the innocent. Fifty years out, the condemned still breathed, making a life for themselves and their children. Five to ten years out the habitats were cauldrons of strife, as order struggled to rise from the hatred and dismay that the convicted carried away from the Earth.
But it had begun unexpectedly and with different ends in mind, this use of distance as a better prison wall. The asteroid later called "the Iron Mile" came in from the outer solar system as both a surprise and a harbinger. It crossed Earth's orbit, swung around the Sun in a flat ellipse, rushed out, and was captured by the Earth as a second companion. That portion of humankind that knew enough to understand what had been averted was relieved, but worried about future threats. Many others, when they heard of the danger that had passed them by, felt vaguely that it was only a reprieve; too many transgressions still waited to be punished.
The lessons and opportunities became clear: A loaded gun pointed at the labors of human history was intolerable. The terrifying vision of what might have been had the nickel-iron massstruck the Earth spurred the finding of a foothold on the intruder.
Humanity mined the Mile and grew its permanent base. Near-Earth outposts became easier to build with these resources. The heavens had spared the Earth from being hit, and had also saved it the political bickering and economic cost of bringing an asteroid close. An uneasy gift of ground both quickened the industrial expansion into the solar system and prevented disastrous surprises.
A dozen Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids that might have one day struck the planet were, one by one, brought into orbits around the Earth and Moon, and mined by a metal-hungry world using machines manned by small groups of specialists and convicts. Later, when these first twelve asteroids had been exhausted, they became way stations and habitats, useful for scientific research and human colonies.
As the number of mined-out rocks grew, they began to be used as prisons by a world that was running out of patience with criminal behavior. The consequences of Earthside prison building from violence and the threat of violence, together with high start-up costs and endless budget increases, finally outweighed the economic benefits to host communities. Beguiling alternatives beckoned in the mined-out rocks, offering irresistible parallel benefits; and the rocks were immediately available.
"We can make the criminals disappear from the face of the Earth," whispered the wishful, "—and we can start tomorrow!"
"Lock them up and throw away the key!"
"Recycle the scum in the fusion torches! It's cheaper."
"Make them disappear, but don't trouble us with how you do it."
"Judge Overton, do you consider the Rocks to be cruel and unusual punishment?"
"Not at all," replied the Chief Justice of the Orbits. "Think of them as sheltered islands, where life goes on."
"But the isolation from humankind . . ."
"They have enough humankind with them."
The more sophisticated said, "We must create a generational firebreak between the socially damaged and the newborn, and we must do this worldwide. We must start over by raising people not to be criminals—but first we must gather all the serious threats and separate them from us."
The inmates in the Orbits would need fewer guards, and this would minimize abuse. As much as possible, the prison colony would police itself. But this model quickly went astray, even as architectural grace was achieved.
The first asteroid was excavated to provide a maintenance level near the outer crust. Ship docks were fitted at the far ends. Sophisticated audio/video devices were installed to monitor the criminal colony, and social scientists were given access to these panoptic observation points. It was only a matter of time before the inmates learned that they were under constant observation, even in their most private moments, in the name of knowledge that would advance the ideals of criminal justice. There was a rash of suicides. The whole story got out through the guards, which led planners to conclude that there was still too much contact between the inmates and the outside. Some psychologists concluded that curiosity about the lawbreakers produced an irresistible need for surveillance.
The first breakout from the Orbits was accomplished through a break-in to the service level, the taking of hostages, and a crash landing of a shuttle in the middle of Lawrence, Kansas, burning a large section of the city. Public outcry and discussion was split between sympathy for all who died and vigilante hatred of the surviving convicts who escaped into the state and caused even more havoc until they were recaptured or killed.
The Lawrence disaster led directly to the planning of timed orbits for the rocks. As one by one Earthside prisons began to fail for reasons of economy, inadequate psychological management, and planning that seemed immune to improvement, the increasing cost of technology in the orbits also came under fire. There was too much technology and no end to the costs. Lunar prisons were hotbeds of corruption and possible disasters if the inmates ever seized the lunar mass launchers and hurled objects at the Earth or any of its planetary or orbital colonies.
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