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Leah Petersen’s debut book is touching, emotional; a comfortably domestic love story set against the backdrop of politics in an empire that spans the galaxy. Our narrator, boy-genius Jacob Dawes, is an oddly mature child who “steps between a punch” at six, is chosen for relocation to the Imperial Intellectual Complex at eight, and “makes love” at fifteen.
Born into one of the most poor slums of an Empire that stretches across worlds, Jake is plucked from his home life due to his amazing maths proficiency and placed into the Imperial Intelligence Complex – a literal think tank where geniuses of every discipline are corralled and kept by the Emperor in happy luxury. Jake’s anger at being taken from his family is soon replaced by awe, and then joy, as he finally finds a place that not only challenges his intellect but supports his endeavours. Aside from the bullying Jake is subjected to from both fellow students and some teachers for his unclass status, Jake is happiest than he’s ever been in his life.
But at the age of fifteen, the Emperor – a boy the same age as Jake – comes to tour the IIC. The two boys become fast friends, bonding over science. When the Emperor departs, he commands Jake to become part of his retinue, ripping Jake from his home a second time. Thus begins the novel’s central love affair, and the turbulent emotional struggle that Jake wrestles with for the rest of the book – can he be happy, being continually uprooted at the Emperor’s will, whenever the Emperor pleases? Can Jake accept being the Emperor’s pet physicist—and later, lover—even knowing that his life is no longer his own to control? Is the lure of an Imperial lab and free rein of the Emperor’s body enough to keep Jake satisfied being a virtual prisoner for the rest of his life? Or does his own concern for the unclass of the Empire, and the vitriolic environment of political manoeuvring, mean that he’ll make mistakes so grave that they will endanger his happy relationship? Or worse, his life… or the Emperor’s?
The clinical way Jake narrates his memoires fits a life where the only education he’s had is in the sciences. It makes sense for a highly articulate and educated man looking back on a highly articulate childhood. But while Jake thinks like a man, he still lashes out like a boy, and Fighting Gravity takes Jake through the rollercoaster of predicaments that are the consequence of Jake’s own immaturity.
The poignant tragedy of the story is not that Jake suffers for his verbal slips, but that he had no adult figure in his life to help him understand the stresses of puberty and hormones, the truths and pains of growing up, or how to navigate the political battlefield into which he is thrust. Professors, yes. Parents, no. Jake is treated as an adult from the age of eight, when he solves an incredible physics problem and has an entirely new form of laser named after him, and nobody seems to see the child floundering for acceptance and understanding underneath the highly competent physicist.
But above all else, the greatest success of Fighting Gravity lies in the fact that homosexual relationships are a simple given in this future. The Emperor may sleep with a woman or a man, as he chooses – the scandal comes not from the gender of the Emperor’s partner, but with his class. In normalizing same-sex relationships this way, Petersen offers an inclusive future where the great social injustices centre on poverty, colonialism, Imperialism and the issues of treating subjects like chess pieces and chattel, and the war to have sexual equality was long ago won.
Fighting Gravity is a sweet, slow love story; a fantasy life for science geeks rounded out by the preciousness of an honest attraction and a careful courtship, and stuffed with the thrill of illicit encounters, and the horror of a world where serious social missteps come with serious consequences.
by Leah Petersen
Dragon Moon Press
Paperback, 9781897492437, 305pp.