Protect and Survive: Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl. Faber and Faber: London, 2007
Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl is exactly the kind of competent, well written, complex sf book I expect from an author of this calibre.
Laura is moving back to Liverpool with her Mum. It's 1962, her father is in the Airforce, her Mum is obsessed with how life was in the War, and her parents are splitting up. There is an American "lodger" in the house who seems to be an old flame from the war. And far, far away, Russian ships are approaching Cuba.
At her new school Laura hooks up with Joel, the one black kid in the class, with Bernadette, mouthy and scarred by poverty and with their friend Nick. Nick and Bernadette introduce Laura (and the reader) to 1960s Liverpool with its grime, the fading docks and the vibrant musical culture. But all is not quite right in Laura's world. Her father has given her a Key which turns out to be a key to a Vulcan, the bombers that are meant to carry a nuclear payload. People seem to be hunting her: Miss Wells and Agatha, both of whom look enough like Laura for people to comment, and the Minuteman, who seems to be a relative of Mort-the-American-lodger.
And suddenly we are into alternative history as the Government declares emergency measures and begins rounding up dissenters. Laura and her friends go on the run as the world around them collapses and they begin to realise that something very strange is going on. Miss Wells and Agatha both come from the future but different futures and Laura has a Choice to make.
Which is where the book nearly came unravelled because the Choices offered are so damn unattractive that there is never any temptation.
Luckily Baxter gets himself off this plot hook with a little deus ex-machina as Dad arrives with Joel, John Lennon and a bunch of proto-Beatles fans, and All is Revealed. The Military Industrial Complex plot to take over the world is scuppered and we return more or less to normal but with "Beatle John" as a hero of the people. That sounds flippant but it's well executed.
The book works pretty well in sf terms with enough hints to aid a child/teen to work out what's happening without wrecking the book and Baxter shows more social courage than most of the writers I've read. There's a single mum, comments on the pressures created by the Catholic Church, the horrendousness of racism and gay bashing. This is the first proper sf book in my collection which has a real, honest to goodness gay character.*
I do find myself mildly worried that despite the explanatory note quite a few kids will be asking their parents about the riots in Britain in 1962.
I have one, and only one argument with Baxter about the world he creates: whatever a random British monarch would have done, the daughter of George and Elizabeth would never have evacuated to Canada.
*The one slight problem is that Nick, the gay kid, opts to go to the future in the hope that it is better. One's first thought is "Yes!" but one's second thought is "hey, but that's not *our* future, and it may not be better, plus, even if it is ours, he's missed out on Gay Liberation, and the wonderful, fabulous backlash against Clause 28 which changed all our lives.