Anywhere but Here by Jerry Oltion
Cover art by Vincent Di Fate
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Although Anywhere but Here is a sequel to The Getaway Special, it stands alone well enough that it can be read by itself. There are some references to the circumstances by which the hyperdrive was developed in the earlier novel, but the focus is on the travails of a young couple, Trent and Donna, as they seek peace.
Unlike most fictional hyperdrives, which require huge spaceships and enormous financial investments to build, Allen Meisner's hyperdrive uses off-the-shelf electronics and easy-to-build field coils that are controlled by a program that can be run on a laptop computer. As a result, ordinary people all over the world have been sealing up their vehicles for space and heading off to the stars. Of course not all of the would-be astronauts have the right stuff -- there are several new craters on the Moon made by people who didn't quite get the concept that a parachute won't carry them safely to the ground on an airless world. But by and large people have been doing it about as successfully as they've been driving cars and trucks for the past century.
However, the US government doesn't see it that way. According to them, it lets people skip out on their debts by running off to parts unknown. It can be used by terrorists, drug smugglers, and other criminals to do all sorts of terrible things. With those arguments on their side, the government has banned the hyperdrive and has orbited laser defense satellites that blast people returning home after their journeys.
Thus Trent and Donna have been keeping the parts of their hyperdrive hidden -- the electronics in a boombox, the field coil in an old motor casing, and the laptop in plain sight for surfing the Internet and doing household accounts. The software has been carefully removed from the laptop's hard drive, but the program's fairly easy to find if one knows how to use a search engine.
Although they made one trip and found a fascinating new species of friends to go fishing with, Trent and Donna weren't quite ready to cut their ties with Earth for good. But things have gotten steadily worse, between the growing political paranoia of the government's policies both domestic and international and the steadily crumbling economy. The housing industry has pretty much collapsed and Trent hasn't worked in ages (it's interesting how this novel has gotten more topical since it was written, rather than becoming dated), so they're really wondering if they should take off now, rather than risking waiting too long and no longer having the resources to go.
But as they're stopping by the bank to use the ATM, a strangely familiar van pulls up and suddenly activates a hyperdrive. The Meisner hyperdrive doesn't just take the vehicle it's installed in -- it also takes all the matter in a spherical volume of space around it, size dependent upon how it's tuned. which means that a surface vehicle taking off cuts a nasty divot.
Trent's just beyond the area effect, not close enough to be caught in it and transported to space and an ugly death by barotrauma, but close enough that the air rushing in to fill the resultant vacuum tosses him into the crater. Which is rapidly filling with water from broken plumbing in the bank, and his efforts to climb out succeed only in making the crater walls crumble.
Donna gets a rope and throws it down to him, but by now the police are arriving and feel the need to hassle them. This nonsense serves only to make Trent and Donna all the more annoyed with the whole situation on Earth, such that they decide not to wait any longer.
They head out into the desert outside of town so their departure crater won't damage anybody's home or business -- a perfect contrast with the bank robber who put them in their fix. Once they've dumped the soil from their divot in Low Earth Orbit, they head for the stars. Their first stop is Onnescu, the habitable planet of Alpha Centauri A, named for its discoverer, Nick Onnescu. In the few years since the development of the hyperdrive, a fair-sized settlement has developed, and it boasts a fair range of amenities.
However, entering an atmosphere by jumping and teleporting is inexact at best, which means Trent and Donna put down a fair ways out of town. Since it's getting dark, they decide to camp for the night, but not before watching a beautiful silvery parachute come down in the distance.
The next morning they discover that the spacefarers who came down in the silvery parachute appear to have been in trouble, and have not made radio contact since setting down. Trent and Donna realize they're probably closest to the touchdown site, so they decide to go offer what help they can.
The spacecraft is a large water tank sealed for vacuum, and its pilots are aliens. A whole family of them -- mom, dad, and several kids -- along with the family's livestock, seeds, tools and household goods, all tossed into a heap when they landed, such that there's been injuries. Dad's reluctant to leave their new homestead, but Mom wants to take their little girl to the doctor. One of her handling tentacles, the snakelike appendages that serve their species as arms, is injured badly enough to need medical attention.
So they all pile into the pickup and head into town. On the way they manage to learn enough of each other's language to learn the alien family are refugees. Their world's version of hillbillies or rednecks, they decided to flee their hardscrabble farm in their war-torn world after the secret of the hyperdrive was brought by a couple of astronauts who happened upon it.
In town, Trent and Donna are able to catch up on the news of the space community, news the US government is trying to keep from getting back to Earth. They also are able to charge up their batteries, and they agree to take a bag of mail to another colony for a carrier who's fallen ill.
After saying good-bye to their new-met friends, Trent and Donna head off to the French world of Mirabelle to deliver the mail. It's a pretty world, but they've hardly more than landed and met the local postmaster before trouble follows them. The US government has interdicted this world, and has a habit of dropping rocks on the heads of anybody who's seen gathering. Apparently one of the satellites saw the two pickups parked together and targeted the location as a hostile assembly.
So Trent and Donna flee, intending to return to Onnescu. Instead they end up in a completely unknown part of space, with none of the stars familiar to the navigation program. Efforts to find a habitable planet go from bad to worse, and all the while their battery charge and breathable air supply go lower and lower. Even when they find what looks like an Eden world, it proves to have a nasty serpent of biochemical incompatibility.
However, it does have a happy ending, thanks to redneck resourcefulness. And the ending also contains a little poke at those people who are always bitching about science fiction being an "escapist" genre -- in the form of a not-so-subtle message that you can't run away from your problems because they're apt to follow you anyway. In fact, it's a message that people today would do well to take to heart, as our Republic slip-slides closer and closer to the ugliness of the fictional US government of the novel -- maybe if some people of good will would start running for office, even in local races, we could start making changes for the better.
Review posted January 11, 2012.
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