I’ve been being verbally harassed, in a friendly manner, by one of my young patrons because I still haven’t read John Barnes’ Tales of the Madman Underground.

Every time I see her, she asks me about it. As we’ve been having the exchange, on average, twice a week for well over a year now, it’s been boiled down to two words:

Her: So...
Me: Nope.

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She is eternally optimistic, and I am eternally stubborn. Not that I have anything against the book! But generally, the more someone tries to get me to do something, the more mulish I become. Poor young soul. Even her attempt to use its Printz Honor status as ammunition backfired. But, of course, I’ve been secretly wondering what I’ve been missing, so when I received a copy of Barnes’ new book, I sat down and read it ASAP.

And I was surprised. Not by the quality—I do have respect for my patron’s taste, and while I haven’t been a fan of every single Printz title ever, they have a good track record—but by the tone, the storyline and even by the subgenre. Because with a title like Losers in Space and back cover copy that screams Reality TV meets Dystopian Future meets Gossip Girl meets Crime Thriller, what I really, really didn’t expect was Some Seriously Hard Sci Fi. Like, with pages and pages of explanations detailing the science behind stuff like milligravity and reaction mass.

I see you Science Folks perking up your ears, and trust me—if you like your science fiction adventurous and surprising, yet true-to-life (and not “old-fashioned magic, just given scientific-sounding names,” as Barnes* refers to Doctor Who), it’s safe to assume that you’re going to enjoy this one.

But, wait, all of you non-science-loving folks! Don’t break out your Peanuts walk just yet! Because the author kept you (and me) in mind while he wrote, and he took the majority of the ultra-hard-science, stuck it into sections called Notes for the Interested, and gave us carte blanche to Ignore At Will. There’s still some to be found within the story—and I admit to doing some skimming—but believe me, if you let the science scare you off, you’ll be missing out.

In addition to the adventure, the plot twists and the cinematic action sequences, the characterization is strong, it hits hard emotionally—at one point toward the end, I found myself laughing and crying at the same time—and it’s got some super world-building. The most frightening, believable dystopias, after all, are the ones that are only a few steps removed from our own present.

All that, and Losers in Space is narrated by Susan Tervaille, a girl who doesn’t think twice about breaking out her ju-jitsu skills, who cracks wise (“he’s so out of it socially that his security blanket wouldn’t want to be seen with him”) as often as she plays nice, and who isn’t just sleeping with a sociopath—she’s got a whole lot in common with him.

I’m looking forward to recommending it to my John Barnes-loving patron. Right after I finally break down and read Madman Underground.


*Fairly. Like you, I will love the Doctor—and all of his “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey”—forever and always, but, please. It’s fair to say that the show doesn’t restrict itself to the bounds of Actual Science.

Let's be honest. If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is most likely being tragically unproductive due to the shiny lure of Pinterest.