Review of Stephen Baxter - The H-Bomb Girl
Laura Mann is in a difficult position - fourteen, parents are splitting up and she is moving from the only home she's ever known to her mother's hometown Liverpool. To make things just that little bit worse it's October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis unfolds; and for some reason everyone is taking a special interest in her - as though she is the lynchpin of a turning point in history.
Mort, a US Airman boarding at her house seems to watch her every move. Miss Wells, a teacher at her new school is eager to be a confidant and offers help a little too assertively, and the forty-something Jive-O-Rama waitress Agatha fauns over Laura. And all Laura wants to do is get on, make new friends in a new town.
They all seem to believe that Laura is a pivotal player in a pivotal moment in history, something a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl struggles to understand. To further confuse matters Laura discovers Miss Wells, Agatha and Mort may not even be from 1962.
I've read many Stephen Baxter books over the years. Without exception I've found them good reads, although hard work. He writes demanding prose. Although this isn't the first young adult book Baxter has written it's the first I've read. Before starting I couldn't imagine how his style and tendency for dense plotting would work for younger readers.
It does, and possibly due to his making it personal. The book is set in Baxter's hometown, where he lived when he was fourteen; the time's not long before his teenage years, so he knows the people and places. That familiarity gives the book richness I didn’t expect.
The story itself could have been trite and predicable - after all we have a teenage girl being courted by various parties seeking her help to further their causes. Baxter avoids this though, by introducing some wonderful touches, not least of which are the reveals - of the time travellers' existence in 1962 and their background stories and plans.
This interweaving of supporting cast back-stories and multiple possible future timelines proves one of the books real strengths. Baxter has, for the most part, managed to bring hard sf concepts to a younger audience without weakening the plot or having lightweight science. There are a few moments when it doesn't quite work - when Laura and friends find unusual objects (modern day tech) in Miss Wells' locker it's a little hackneyed.
Generally Baxter blends his story into 1962 well, effectively using pop-culture references - the Beatles and James Bond being "new" - and his time-travellers are just different enough to cause double takes.
It's interesting that the lead character is female. SF traditionally appeals to boys more than girls and, from my memories of this age, teenage boys are less likely to empathise with a female protagonist than male. I hope Baxter hasn't limited his potential audience, this is very entertaining and deserves to be read widely.