The Creative Fire is the first book in Brenda Cooper’s series RUBY’S SONG, a sociological YA science fiction story set on the generation ship The Creative Fire. Ruby Martin lives in the outer/lower levels of the ship, repairing robots. She is a “gray,” one of those who maintain the machines, cleanse the water, grow the food and keep the ship clean. The grays (the color refers to their clothes or uniforms) are brutally oppressed by the reds, who allegedly keep the peace. In other parts of the ship, the blues are responsible for logistics, and the greens command.
Ruby is a gifted singer. She has a compelling voice and writes her own songs, but they are not heard outside of her circle of friends. During an accident on the ship, Ruby meets and rescues Fox, a man from the blue levels. Ruby begs Fox to take him with her, but he refuses at first. Later, when Ruby’s orchestrated act of defiance is punished by both the blues and the reds, Fox does find her and bring her to his levels, where he plans to make her a pop star. People throughout the ship are planning for change: the grays, who have been held down and held back since an unsuccessful mutiny decades earlier; various blues who are unhappy with social inequities; reds who want to be true peacekeepers, not enforcers; and even some greens who don’t like the current captain. Ruby is seen as a symbol of this movement. What the greens and blues know, and soon share, is that the Fire is slowing down, and this is taken to mean that they are approaching their destination, the Adiamo system.
The story follows Ruby and her best friend Onor, who is in love with her. Onor remains on the gray levels, training for the general strike a gray named Conway and a mysterious green named Joel are planning. Ruby, meanwhile, becomes a figurehead for social equality on the blue levels.
What Cooper does best in this story is to demonstrate how easy it is to create an underclass, just by denying education and access to information. Early in the book we have watched the blues deliberately adjust laws and procedures to deny opportunities to gifted grays. When Ruby is on the blue levels, she encounters the biases her new friends have about the grays. To them, the reds are “peacers,” and Ruby is frustrated that they don’t take her experience of the reds as rapists and abusers seriously.
I found The Creative Fire only partially successful. The idea of class inequality works quite well, and Onor is a worthwhile character who is interesting to follow. Ruby is almost compelling. At times she acts bravely and passionately. Her weakness is that she is immediately sexually attracted to any man with power. Ruby despises her gray mother for trading sex for favors, but in this volume, Ruby is sleeping her way to the top, although she does not acknowledge that. She throws herself at Fox, begging him to take her with him the first few minutes after they meet. She and Fox do become lovers, even though she is attracted to his friend Dayn, a celebrity yoga instructor named KJ and an upper-level blue named Colin. Ultimately, she ends up with Joel. Ruby acts blissfully unaware of her own inconsistency.
Another problem is the way the action sequences are handled. Most of them happen offstage. Some of these scenes should carry emotional drama. Onor rescues Joel from an assassination attempt and accepts a job with him. A few chapters later, Onor reflects on the way Joel has inspired his complete loyalty. How? We haven’t seen Joel do anything. Since Joel seems to be a heartless manipulator who is using the grays as cannon fodder in his bid to take over the ship, it becomes even more important that we see how he wins people over. When the battle for the Fire starts, Ruby is part of it for a brief time, then ends up going to Joel’s quarters, and they have sex. Later, Onor reports to her that the fighting has spread ship-wide and nearly a thousand people are dead, most of them grays. By shifting attention away from the battle and onto Ruby’s dalliance, Cooper unwittingly makes her look selfish and shallow.
The part I struggled with the most was the Creative Fire itself. I never had a good vision of the ship. I know it is a “fat disk.” I don’t know how many people are on the ship. My biggest problem is the story all the ship members have been told about the purpose of the Fire. They all believe they are going home, returning to a populated planet, even though the Fire has been in space for over five hundred years. They have a hold full of cargo. Part of what has accelerated the timetable of the “power-shift” is the concern about how to divide up the cargo among all sectors of the ship. This story, which is even confirmed by Joel, is illogical to me. It seems more likely that the entire crew has gotten the story wrong, and the purpose of the Fire’s voyage is more traditional. I will have to wait and see what Cooper does with this in future books.
Cooper says in her foreword that The Creative Fire was inspired by the story of Maria Eva Duarte, the poor Argentinian girl who met and married General Juan Peron and was immortalized as Evita. Evita is a good starting place for this kind of a story, but I wish Cooper would let go of the literal facts of Eva Peron’s life. Ruby is a completely different person in a completely different world and I would like to see her develop on her own, not as a pale reflection of Evita.
I had problems with this book, but there is an interesting idea here, and with a trilogy planned, I think that Cooper will let Ruby mature and become her own person. I will at least read the second book of this series. As for the first one, Cooper raises thoughtful questions about equality, privilege and bias.