Book review of Stolen Earth by J.T. Nicholas

Titan Books, 2021, Paperback, 399pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781789093155

This book review was written in 2021 for Vector, the magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.

Stolen EarthWelcome, puny humans, to the smoking ruin of your future: where computers have risen up, overthrown their foolish human masters and laid waste to the Earth. The remnants of humanity are now crammed into thousands of tight metal boxes adrift across the Solar System, leaving Earth at the mercy of six artificial super-intelligences and unreachable behind the Interdiction Zone, a fearsome ring of weaponry that keeps those nasty computers locked away, where they can’t do any harm.

Things have been this way for a century, and humanity is governed by the totalitarian Sol Commonwealth, which has to keep an iron grip on all resources. All citizens who agree to it its terms are guaranteed enough to live on, and no more. You’re within your rights to live free outside SolCom, but those who do so get nothing – freedom costs.

The crew of the spaceship Arcus wish things could be different, but they’re down on their luck and running out of fuel and food. So, when asked by a rich benefactor to do the impossible: sneak through the Interdiction Zone, land on the ruined homeworld and bring back some forbidden fruits of the pre-collapse days, it’s hard for them to refuse.
But, behind the Interdiction Zone, Old Earth is hiding a secret, and the crew of the Arcus may get more than some valuable old trinkets on their trip…

Well into my mid-teens, I would’ve enjoyed Stolen Earth. Back then, I raced through my local library’s science fiction section, loving every new adventure of robots, space pirates, galactic empires, magicians, aliens, time travellers, scientists, astronauts…

Until my innocent enjoyment – alas! – was stolen by an evil gang of authors led by Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain M. Banks, and Charlie Stross, whose unstinting interrogations and modern re-imaginings revealed my space dreams to be not predictions, but purest fantasy.

How could anyone writing of colonising other planets not be changed by Robinson’s political, personal, and geological take on Mars? Surely, super-intelligent logical robots out to kill their fleshy creators were finished by the Minds of Banks’ Culture? And wasn’t it self-evident to anyone who’d read Charlie Stross’ long, hard look at the economics of galactic empires that those monstrosities were a fairy tale?

I assumed writers would read Robinson, Banks and Stross, and, like me, be changed forever – set free by the stunning complexity and size of the actual universe. These guys had done the maths, applied the science, read the political theory:

  • Space colonies – so much more complex and difficult to build, manage and sustain than we’d ever dreamed of!
  • Outer space – through which fleets of shining battleships cruised so majestically swift – so much more vast, hostile and empty than we’d ever imagined!
  • The societies of tomorrow – inevitably built upon the society we inhabited today, which was itself unrecognisable to our ancestors.

But no, it seemed so many never got the memo; were still, even now, writing fantasies…

And so back to Stolen Earth, a space-adventure mystery-story sandwich, iced with a thin layer of political frosting.
If, just like 12-year-old me did, you enjoy undemanding space adventures leavened with a philosophical question or two, then you won’t dislike Stolen Earth: it has mysteries, injustice, adventure, and guns; there are uptight supercomputers that call everyone Ms/Mr/Mrs Surname, a corrupt and smothering space empire (sort of) which needs to be stopped, and a vast ancient mystery just waiting to be solved by a heroic crew of privateers who are struggling to do what’s right. Huzzah!

While not ashamed to admit that more than 35 years ago I’d have lapped up Stolen Earth, I’m no longer that same bright-eyed naif, drunk on the dreams that a simple library card can give. Ultimately, perhaps I’m the poorer for that, but my adult brain will not let me forgive Stolen Earth its failure to world-build more rigorously and dream a little wider.


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