THE H-BOMB GIRL
by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The H-Bomb Girl, Stephen Baxter's novel about the Cuban Missile Crisis is different from other treatments of those days in October 1962 in several ways. Rather than set it in the United States or Russia, Baxter has elected to center his story on a Liverpool which seems worlds away from Cuba as the teen population listens to up-and-coming bands like The Beatles. At the same time, Baxter has written a time travel story which differs from most in making the protagonist one of the indigenous people who must deal with people from her future.
Laura Mann is a fourteen year old English girl whose family has relocated to Liverpool where she finds herself not only at a new school and in strange surroundings, but also has to deal with the break-up of her parents and her mother's new paramour, Mort. Laura also carries around a secret, a strange key her father gave her, along with a code which she is supposed to use if the world's situation seems to be getting worse and her father isn't around to help. With the Cuban Missile Crisis coming up, the key seems to be her route to salvation.
However, while trying to live as normal a life as possible with her new friends, Bernadette and Joel, the former an outspoken girl from a broken home, the latter the only black student in the school, Laura begins to get strange vibes from not only Mort, but also Miss Wells, one of the teachers at the school. Added to Laura's paranoia is the appearance of Agatha, a woman at one of the local nightclubs who calls Laura "Mum."
Although Baxter spends the first half of the novel focusing on the kids' explorations of the Mersey beat scene, the crisis in Cuba is never far from the surface, and eventually it takes over the kids' lives, even as it becomes clear that Laura, Joel, and Bernadette do not come from the same world as we do.* It is also at this point that the characters fully realize that Agatha and Laura come from the future and must deal with what that means to them.
Baxter does a good job handling his characters and their reaction to the unfolding events. Bernadette was set up early on to be somewhat self-centered, and she remains true to that characterization, Joel is very much aware of the world around them, and Laura is the everygirl character, trying her best to cope with a situation which is not entirely under her control. Baxter also does a good job of capturing the feel of the early sixties, although he assumes readers will know what a Mod and a Teddy Boy are (among other things), which may not be the case for the younger readers this book seems to be aimed at. At the same time, he does provide a concise afterword about the historical crisis and the Beatles.
Rather than focusing on the alternate history or the time travel aspect of the novel, Baxter brings his characters and their situation to the forefront. This decision downplays the science fictional aspect of the work, and focuses the reader's attention more on the characters' reactions to the events that they are living through. Baxter's characters are believable and enjoyable, which allows this technique to work well.
*An early clue is an ad that the Savage Young Beatles were playing the Cavern on October 22, 1962. In fact, while the Beatles played the Cavern on the evening of October 21 and at lunch on October 26, on October 22, they were playing at Queen's Hall in Widnes.