the Little Red Reviewer

The Big Red Buckle, by Matthew Alan Thyer

Posted on: February 20, 2014

big red buckleThe Big Red Buckle, by Matthew Alan Thyer

published December 2013

where I got it: received copy from the author

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A 1500 kilometer race the dangers of Mars. Failure means injury, embarrassment, and possibly death.

You had me at “Mars”.  but racing? sports? Wait,  what?

okay, let’s start at the beginning.

The Grand Martian Traverse is a 1500 km race, pushing competitors to their physical and mental limits.  Much of the race is run, but the huge cliffs, canyons and craters on Mars allow for unprecedented thermal air currents, encouraging competitors to leap off cliffs and glide on foldable hang-gliders as far as possible. For long distance and endurance runners, this is what they’ve been preparing for their entire life.  Martian colonists, Terrans, spectators, sponsors and the media flock to the event to see history being made.  Besides accolades and sponsorship awards, the winner receives the Big Red Buckle.

What all that really means is that wealthy competitors have the best equipment and huge entourage  support teams, and regular folks like you and me would typically have used equipment and are forced rely on our families and friends to be our support teams.  Terrans also have an unfair advantage, that of living in higher gravity.  Running and leaping in lower gravity is easy for the Terrans.  But only a Martian colonist would know the secrets of the Red Planet.

The main character of the story is Marco Aguilar, an endurance athlete. He’s won a number of distance races both on Mars and on Earth, but even he’s a little intimidated by the GMT.  Shortly after the race starts, a younger and less experienced competitor, Petrus Mandel, attaches himself to Marco.  Marco isn’t excited (at all) about having a hanger on, but this is Mars. You help your fellows,  because if you don’t, they could die. And running all by yourself gets boring after a while, even for Marco.

No amount of equipment makes running Mars easy though. there is no way to feel the wind on your face, or feel the texture of the ground through your sneakers. Winning a race on Mars is just as much about understanding the ecology and wind systems as it is having strength and stamina.

I’m the last person to be interested in a competitive sports story.  I’m more a competitive couch potato, or competitive siesta-er, if you know what I mean. But what I got out of this story wasn’t anything to do with sports, but to do with the difference between Earth (and primarily American culture) and cultural expectations on another planet.  On Earth, and especially in America, we prize individualism, independence, and self-reliance. On Mars, it’s the opposite. This is an environment that can kill you in seconds.  The need to “go it alone” is usually suicidal.  Add to that, that too often, in competitive sports, the more funding you have,the better equipment and coaches and support you’ll have, and the better your chances of winning. Again, on Mars, it’s often the opposite. You make do with what you have.  The Big Red Buckle certainly has a lot that’s endurance sports related, but I saw it first as an underdog story, a story of honest teamwork and intelligence vs who can spend the most money on high tech equipment.

As Marco and Pet continue, and they both know the conditions aren’t idea for catching decent thermals.  But any amount of gliding is better than none, and Marco knows a few secrets of the terrain.  Once the two Martians start gliding through the thermals, the other competitors feel the pressure to do the same. It only works for some of them.  Marco might win this race yet, even with Pet slowing him down. Before long, Marco will have a lot more than Pet to worry about.

You might ask what these competitors do at nighttime?  Each racer is followed by a support crew, often in multiple vehicles. The person running the race can take a few hours to sleep, eat, and refresh, starting the run again at dawn. The famous Terran favorites are followed by high tech entourages, while Marco is followed by his wife Emma and baby daughter Grace, in their family rover.  Makes me concerned for Pet though, doesn’t seem as if any support vehicles are following him.

Every few chapters, we get a view from the Race commentators, Bill Vance and Toma Crysta, and these guys are just straight up great characters. Vance strikes me as a stereotypical sportscaster, with his plastered on smile, inane questions, and eyes that never leave the teleprompter.  Crysta, on the other hand, is quite a bit more subtle. He’s won the GMT a few times, he’s even raced against Marco in Terran events. The interactions between Vance and Crysta are awkwardly funny, with Vance making TV style small talk, and Crysta grinding his teeth a lot. These two gentlemen have, shall we say, very different goals.

The Big Red Buckle has so much going on (the growing friendship between Marco and Pet, Martian thermal gliding techniques and technologies, a conspiracy, etc), that I was surprised it was so short.  Yes, there is a lot jammed into this 88 page novella, but none of the scenes ever feel rushed or tacked on. The dialog feels natural, the characterization is deftly woven into the flow of the story, and the technology appears well researched. the author, Matthew Thyer is an endurance sportsman himself, so I imagine much of the physical strain of the endurance race was written from first hand experience.  The Big Red Buckle is a quick and decidely satisfying read, and I look forward to seeing what Thyer comes up with next.  And you know what? Even if it’s sports related, this couch potato is going to read it.

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6 Responses to "The Big Red Buckle, by Matthew Alan Thyer"

Wow! Thanks Andrea. I’m glad you liked it. I’m struggling right now with book two and you’ve just given me a little mental juice to make it through the conclusion of this manuscript.

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[…] me tell you, as an author, this moment feels a lot like being made. Andrea Johnson, over at Little Red Reviewer, just reviewed my first book THE BIG RED BUCKLE. There is a lot in here that makes me happy with […]

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First of all, Big Red Buckle sounds like it should have been a Simon and Garfunkle song.

Second, what an original idea. Sci-fi can be so innovative at times, but sports is a new one to me. I can only think of a few references, and no other stories where it is the focus.

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I can’t think of a single other Sports in Space story either. Sure, characters play games, or train, discuss athleticism . . . but it’s never the focus. And like Matt said when I interviewed him, so many people actively watch sports and participate in teams, so why isn’t sports + scifi a bigger thing?

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Honestly Nathan, right now I’m just trying to figure out how people are going to play football in the future. Once I get that fan base on board I’ll be on best seller lists. Necessity being the mother of innovation.

I suspect that the answer to the question “Why isn’t sports in genre fiction a bigger thing?” might come down to social cliques and norms. Andrea is right, I’m an endurance athlete. I’m still involved in long distance running groups and while I don’t soar any more I follow those sorts of sports actively (especially vol-bivy). From within these groups, where I have good friends even, I’ve received a stereo typical response which generally boils down to “I don’t read genre fiction.”

I really enjoyed writing The Big Red Buckle, and since it came out, I find it amazing what a creative effort like this can do for a person. I’ve met more people, from so many different walks of life, than I would have otherwise.

Just and FYI: right now the ebook version is on-sale on Amazon (only $0.99). And I’ve nearly finished the second in the series.

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[…] Discovery blamed on: Little Red Reviewer […]

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