It’s a couple of hundred years in the future and mankind has created a society free from want. Everyone is rich, no one is hungry or without shelter. What’s the catch?
There’s nothing to do. Except sit around and watch the meeds, which most do.
So Susan Teraville (aka Crazy Science Girl) and her other loser friends decide to stow away on the milk run of the Virgo, a cargo ship in orbit between Earth and Mars, and make themselves famous enough to become official celebrities, with their own meeds, for which they will get paid more than for sitting around doing nothing. (Some people are just never satisfied.)
As you might expect from a novel by John Barnes, all does not go according to plan, beginning with an accident (or was it?) that kills most of Virgo’s crew and knocks her way off course, followed by a subsequent series of mysterious accidents (or are they?) that whittle down the losers down one at a time. Coping with disaster teaches Susan and her crew that maybe they aren’t the losers they or their society thought they were, and the last chapter is is maybe the most satisfying revenge fantasy I’ve ever read.
A lot going on here, including interpolatory chapters called “Notes for the Interested.” Barnes writes
In the main text, I’ll explain only as muc as a reader needs to follow the story; if it’s just more cool science upon which you may wish to geek, I’ll package it in a Note for the Interested. You ca read the whole book and follow the story without reading a single Note for the Interested (if you’re not interested). On the other hand, if you are interested, they’re easy to find.
To paraphrase John Le Carre, this novel wears many hats upon its head. First off, it is a slam-bang action adventure story, a Tom Swift novel without the adverbs and with the tech based in reality. It’s an exemplar of the sf “if this goes on” novel–the court case upon which the survival of the Virgo hangs is uncomfortably possible, or it is at least from a conservative perspective. It’s a character study, in that it looks at what happens to five distinct character types locked up on a tin can in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing for almost two years, and since the narrative is in Susan’s voice it is also an examination of the art and results of command.
Losers in Space would be a terrific novel to teach in high school. Teenagers will really relate to the characters, it’s an interesting literary choice, and the Notes are a great first step into can-do science. A fun, fascinating and terrifying read.