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Brute Orbits [NOOK Book]


“Like his previous tales of technocratically engineered futures (Macrolife; Stranger Suns; etc.), Zebrowski's latest evokes the pioneering SF of social philosopher Olaf Stapledon... 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, ...
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Brute Orbits

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“Like his previous tales of technocratically engineered futures (Macrolife; Stranger Suns; etc.), Zebrowski's latest evokes the pioneering SF of social philosopher Olaf Stapledon... 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... Zebrowski argues his points with conviction.
Publishers Weekly

"A brilliant and dramatic philosophical reflection on the nature of society, technology . . . and humanity itself. Zebrowski is a deep thinker who writes about the big questions' in the grand tradition of Wells, Stapledon, and Clarke."
-- Jack M. Dann, award-winning author of The Silent and The Memory Cathedral

High Crimes Call for High Punishment. It is the twenty-first century. Convicts are sentenced to asteroids that move in ever-widening solar orbits, timed to return when their terms run out. But a few ambitious administrators discover that small "errors" in velocity can rid them of selected groups altogether: the hardcore violent, the mentally defective, and especially the political dissidents. Enduring the black vise of interstellar space-time, these human rejects--men and women mixed together--create their own Darwinian societies, struggling to survive.

Back on Earth, a handful of sympathetic and curious scientists have not forgotten these lost citizens. When a technological breakthrough makes it possible to overtake these scattered asteroids, a courageous team sets out to go where none has willingly gone before. What they discover in these "brute orbits" is both provocative and moving--a startling vision of humanity you will never forget. 
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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: 9781497622838
  • Publisher: Open Road Media
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 832,867
  • File size: 484 KB

Meet the Author

George Zebrowski’s more than forty books include novels, short fiction collections, anthologies, and a book of essays.

Science fiction writer Greg Bear calls him “one of those rare speculators who bases his dreams on science as well as inspiration,” and the late Terry Carr, one of the most influential science fiction editors of recent decades, described him as “an authority in the SF field.” Zebrowski has published about a hundred works of short fiction and more than a hundred and forty articles and essays, and has written about science for Omni Magazine. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Science Fiction Age, Nature, the Bertrand Russell Society News, and many other publications.

His best known novel is MACROLIFE (Harper & Row, 1979), which Arthur C. Clarke described as “a worthy successor to Olaf Stapledon’s STAR MAKER. It’s been years since I was so impressed. One of the few books I intend to read again.” Library Journal chose MACROLIFE as one of the one hundred best science fiction novels, and The Easton Press included it in its “Masterpieces of Science Fiction” series. Zebrowski’s stories and novels have been translated into a half-dozen languages; his short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. STRANGER SUNS (Bantam, 1991) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
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Read an Excerpt

Brute Orbits

By George Zebrowski


Copyright © 1998 George Zebrowski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-2283-8


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 mass struck 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.

Timed orbits would need no guards, no rules to be obeyed, no trustees—hence there would be no relationships between guards and inmates to go wrong, no points of contact with the outside until the habitat returned. It was this infinitely permeable interface with the societies around each prison that was most feared; too much passed back and forth, despite immense efforts, in the form of orders for illegal commerce, executions, and legal strategies. The prisons were schools for new criminals, who graduated from a system of natural selection that tested them with violence and hatred, and made them ready, not for life outside, but for supermax incarceration.

Once a habitat was inserted into its cometary orbit, all costs and cruelties of previous penal servitude would end for the duration.

To insert a rock into a cometary Sun orbit of any desired period required only a specific addition to its already existing orbital velocity. And from timed orbits it was only a small, tempting step to a miscalculation of the period, either as an honest mistake or as a politically motivated action to rid the world of its professional high achievers, the pitiless "Alcatraz Class Criminals," into an open orbit, so-called, that would never bring the prison back. Long periods or open orbits also replaced the distasteful penalty of capital punishment. Life without even the physical possibility of parole effectively abolished official killing.

"No more executions of the innocent!" cried the self-proclaimed humane, puffing virtue.

"We will not see you again," intoned the judges.

And to communities and victimized individuals came the assurance: "You will not look into this face again. You will not suffer from him again. He will go from you forever."

This was only one of the social opportunities that came with the opening of the solar system to industry—as simple as discovering that "transportation" was not only cost effective hut relatively cheap, and growing cheaper. New meaning was given to the word that had described the exile of convicts to imperial colonies of centuries past. For the politicians, it was the opening of a bottomless abyss into which they could throw the rejects—and the inconvenient; and as it had been with previous penal systems, it was not always easy to know which was which. Nations traded their damned: You exile mine and I yours. In the minds of the law-fearing middle classes living between the alliance of power and the street and kept ignorant as one does children before whom one is ashamed, the convicted must surely be guilty of something, even if it was not the specific charge. The few guiltless who might occasionally be trapped by the system were a small price to pay ...

As the chorus of practicality and political convenience exhausted its justifications in the minds of thoughtful human beings, the chorus of conscience began its chant, as the realities waited to be revealed in the deep void. The permeable interface between society and its prisons had not been abolished, only slowed; the curiosity of the thoughtful persisted, irritating human sympathies as a drop of water slowly wears away mountains.

With later knowledge, the cry went up, saying, "If we had known, if we had only understood, we would have done differently!"

Power, the father of the middle-class elites, replied, "You wanted peace in your enclaves, to raise your families and pursue your educations, and we gave you that!" And the damned of the streets said to power, "We did your dirty work, and filled your pockets with wealth, selling the drugs and vices that you could not to the less-than clean and straight."

Power said to this, "You also worked for yourselves as you corrupted us."

There is false pride in hindsight. Revealed wrongs elicit sentimental bandages to dress the wounds of history. Individuals insist, saying, "I would not have let this happen, because I am good. If I had been given the power ... if I had been in charge ... if I were king ... if I were dictator for even a week!" The sweetest lie of all sings of what might have been ... if only ...

The chorus of history is not completely silenced. Its bitter overview gives what only the few wish to see, and it's full of pity. Later step-back perspectives bring dishonest, conflicting, and self-congratulatory wisdom. Raise up the damned and they will behave no differently than the powerful; diminish the powerful and they will be as the damned. Hope suggests that hindsight should not wait, but invade and rule present; while another wisdom holds that life must unfold unpredictably, with failure and success as its twin powers, that impatience and constraining reason are the enemies of ingenuity, eager to shackle the future with much more than the forwarding of settled knowledge and culture.


Nail Them to the Sky


"An orbit longer than the lifetime of any inmate is the most just solution possible to the social problems created by past systems of life imprisonment. Prisons of any kind are bad for the communities around them, from a moral and social view, even when they have been economically beneficial. The Orbits require no warden or guards, thus eliminating all possible abuses. What can it matter to the lifers who will never be released? We are assured, as we sever ourselves from them irrevocably, that a life sentence will be just that. No false promise is held out. No world waits outside the walls. No one ever gets out. No one can reach out to create new criminals. Deterrence is served as well as it can be, and our hypocrisy is at an end. Just look at the good use to which we can put these mined-out rocks! A pretty piece of real estate at 150 square kilometers!"

Harry Howes grew up on a dairy farm near the caverns in upstate New York. He came down to New York City in 2049 to escape a violent father, an incestuous mother, and a farm that would soon go under. He was just twenty and didn't know what he was going to do, but hoped to find work on the dikes that were being constructed to prevent the rising ocean from flooding the city.

He never got near to working on the project, because he met Jay Polau, who told him about an old world jeweler and watch repairer with a shop on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx.

"The man is old," Polau said, "so we can go in and get a lot of stuff before he wakes up. The guy's rich, with more stuff we can fence than he'll ever be able to use before he dies. He can't sell it, but we can. He's got no one, and nobody cares what happens to him. He never spends anything. It's not right, not when we can use what he's got."

Harry needed a few bucks, just until the job came through; if it didn't, he'd have to go home, and that frightened him. It would be all right, he told himself, almost a loan, just enough to get him through and keep him from the clutches of his mother. When his father died, she'd get the insurance and upgrade the farm to hydroponics, factory style. He shuddered at the thought of going home again to run the farm and take care of her. Anything would be better.

Old man Buda, an old Hungarian, got up and caught them at his ancient safe. Polau clubbed him to death. They opened the safe—and there was old jewelry, lots of bank codes, even some paper money.

The police were quietly waiting outside when he and Polau came out.

"I've never done anything wrong before," Harry told the judge.

"But your friend, Polau, what about him?"

"I didn't know much about him ..."

"The old man died," the judge said, "and you admitted hitting him also. You may kill again if I let you loose. Better to have you out of the way. Thirty years."

Thirty years, in a cave up in the sky. Polau got life.

On the day that he and Polau arrived, the engineers lit the sunplate at one end of the hollowed-out asteroid. This was a huge, perfectly round plate set in the narrow forward end of the hollow potato. Fed by electricity from compact fusion furnaces, it glowed red when first turned on, then yellow, and bright yellow-orange at full power, filling the inside with yellow brightness to reveal an incurving land of mud piled with crates and building machines. The only finished structures were three silver prefab mess hall domes in the forward section.

All worth had been ripped from this inner land, and it cried out to have something put back.

As they looked around at the building machines and crates of prefabricated housing parts, Harry Howes knew that he was here to stay, with no chance for parole before his thirty years were up. Polau would never get out.

They had killed the old man, Harry told himself, feeling foolish, as if he were talking to someone else, so for a while at least something harsh should be done to him. But when would it end? Would thirty years be just about right, or would he know in his heart when his punishment was over, when he came to feel something for the man he had helped to kill, much sooner than thirty years, and then still have to endure the remaining time?

These were vague thoughts in his brain as he looked at Polau, who would never really be his friend; it would have been better if they had been friends before, so their time here might be more bearable. From what had come out in court, Harry wondered what Polau had needed him for, since he had burgled that same shop before, never expecting that the old man would modernize his alarm system. They were very different people, Harry thought. His father would have called Polau a creep—a thing that went around looking out for itself, and did it very well most of the time—except when it got caught.

Yevgeny Tasarov liked to think that there was no one like him. Yet he also liked to believe that he was always on the lookout for his equals. It was not his fault that they came few and far between, and that recently they had not come at all. He sometimes wondered whether he was no longer able to recognize them.

Looking at the humanity around him, watching it haul itself through the vast changes of the last century and a half, Tasarov had concluded early in life that it was doing only what it could do, not what it should. That way was mostly beyond the capacities of concerted action; whenever humankind sought to agree and act in a large group, a curve of differing opinions appeared, as if someone had pressed a display button. The curve was always the same, with all the expected views present as if they were built-in. They probably were built-in.

Besides, it was hard to know what should be done with humanity; most were still content to live with no hindsight, less foresight, and little self-awareness. The whole species was still on automatic. Maybe it would never be a breakout species. So he had decided to do what he could do with the tools of thought and learned craft. He was the one-eyed man in the country of the blind, but he worried about having only one eye; two would have been better. Lawful or unlawful mattered little, as long as a project was practical and profitable, and not overly repellent. The craft made him happy; thought was hard work, but the reality of waiting pitfalls sharpened his alertness, as he brought the pleasure of craft to bear against failure.


Excerpted from Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski. Copyright © 1998 George Zebrowski. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. The Rocks,
2. Nail Them to the Sky,
3. The Thinking Happiness,
4. Lockdown,
5. Send Your Evil Sons Away ...,
6. ... and They Will March Home One Day,
7. The Thinking Happiness,
8. Rough Justice,
9. Season's Greeting,
10. A Sun of Deeds,
11. The Lost Within,
12. Aliens,
13. Enemies of the State,
14. Warriors,
15. Plato's Cave,
16. You Have Been Told ...,
17. ... But You Have not Heard,
18. A Tunnel Out of Life,
19. The Last One Left,
20. A Lamp Unto Himself,
21. Reach Out ...,
22. Stranger Kin,
23. Nothing Else But Here,
24. Another Orphan,
25. The Way in the Void,
26. Umbilicals,
27. Dilemmas,
28. A Supplement to the Soul,
"Here There Be Tygers" Or "If You Think It Couldn't Happen ... Read on and Learn More about It",
About the Author,

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