Literature / Grand Central Arena

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It is a place where we all meet and challenge, where bargains are made and broken and avenged, where an alliance may be built on blood and fortune. It is a place where faith is lost, and where religions are founded or proven true. It is where you shall confront, and be confronted by, truth and lies, enemies and allies, belief and denial, impossibility and transcendance.

A Genre Throwback Space Opera series by Ryk E. Spoor. Currently consists of three novels:
  • Grand Central Arena (2010)
  • Spheres of Influence (2013)
  • Challenges of the Deeps (2017)

The Sandrisson Drive promises to give humanity Faster-Than-Light Travel of the distances-are-shorter-in-hyperspace variety. But when the Holy Grail, the first manned FTL ship, transitions into Kanzaki-Locke space, it finds itself not in a featureless void, but contained within an enormous sphere encompassing the volume equivalent to the solar system. Outside the sphere is the Arena, where thousands of alien races interact and compete according to the rules laid down by the Precursors who built it. And if Captain Ariane Austin and her crew are ever to get the Drive running again and get home, they'll have to face the wonders and dangers of the Arena and stake out a place for humanity in a universe stranger than they ever imagined.

The first volume of the series is available from the Baen Free Library.

Tropes in the Grand Central Arena series:

  • Absolute Xenophobe: The Molothos. The Arena system forces them to interact non-destructively with other sentients, and they are not happy about it.
  • Absurdly High-Stakes Game: This is the core and essence of life in the Arena; if the name "The Arena" didn't clue you in, the fact that the "Challenges" can cost you entire SOLAR SYSTEMS should.
  • Air Whale: The space between the Spheres supports several airborne life-forms ranging from small fast winged predators to enormous creatures capable of doing serious damage to a battleship.
  • All There in the Manual: Ryk Spoor has extensive notes on the books, including about the characters and their world and the various shout-outs.
  • Artificial Gravity: Check. Double check. Lift off a Sphere and you still haven't escaped it.
  • Asteroid Thicket: Justified; they aren't actually asteroids, but it's still a space obstacle course (with some actual asteroids as part of it, or at least Really Big Rocks).
  • Becoming the Mask: Part of Orphan's backstory. He was sent to infiltrate the Liberated, and not only came to agree with their cause but rose to become their leader and kept the Faction going for centuries after it would otherwise have been wiped out.
  • Big Dumb Object: They don't get much bigger than the Arena. A scale model of the entire universe is just the start of it, even the smaller components are mind-bogglingly impressive.
  • Bio-Augmentation: "Biomods", anywhere from cosmetic changes to military enhancements.
  • Blood Magic: An element in the Faith's initiation. And the Shadeweavers'.
  • Brain–Computer Interface: Most people on Earth have direct interfaces with their AI-equipped personal organizers/communication devices, to the point where Ariane is considered a bit odd because she doesn't use the direct interface unless she has to. This does mean that she's the least affected of the crew when all their AIs suddenly stop working.
  • Brain Uploading: Backups are mentioned in passing.
  • By the Power of Grayskull!: How The Faith and the Shadeweavers grant their powers.
  • Calling Your Attacks: The Shadeweavers. And the Faith, though they tend to be a lot more flowery.
  • Captain Ersatz: One of the Hyperion survivors who appears in Challenges of the Deeps is a Japanese racing driver whose name consists of two words denoting "speed".
  • The Cavalry:
    • Near the climax of Spheres of Influence, Sun Wu Kung and his air whale fleet.
    • In Challenges of the Deeps, Ariane and the others who went on the expedition to the Deeps return just in time to see off the invading Molothos fleet.
  • Clarke's Third Law: The Faith and the Shadeweavers. The whole Arena is this, too.
  • Cool Gate: In person-sized and starship-sized forms.
  • Corralled Cosmos: The entire cosmos is enclosed in the Arena, which limits where and how quickly anybody can travel beyond their own solar system.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The designers of the Hyperion Project, in drawing inspiration from fictional sources, went so far as to invent solutions for fictional problems that didn't exist in real life. This saves Ariane and her crew when it turns out that one such problem really does exist in the Arena.
  • Curtains Match the Window: Ariane's hair is noted as being almost the same shade of blue as her eyes.
  • Defictionalization: The in-universe goal of the Hyperion Project, developing "real" versions of fictional or fictionally-dramatized characters as close to their fictional portrayals as reality permitted. In Challenges of the Deeps, it's revealed that the Arena itself takes this to even more drastic levels; not only do the Hyperion survivors have the powers that they could be physically granted, they also are granted those powers that would be otherwise physically impossible, such as fictional technology, psychic powers, or the strength to break bonds made of a material as far beyond neutronium as neutronium is beyond mundane matter.
  • Divided for Publication: The Japanese edition of Grand Central Arena is split into two volumes.
  • Energy Ball: Of the made-of-electricity sort. One of the Shadeweavers' attacks. Word of God says that any energy type can be used; Amas-Garao just likes the zappy ball.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: Certain technologies just don't work in the Arena — AI; nuclear reactors; nanotech beyond certain limits. This is assumed to be due to The Arena's deliberate intervention; it doesn't want you having those things to play with, so you don't.
  • Enlightenment Superpowers: The Faith's approach to training.
  • Evil Counterpart: Alexander Fairchild to Marc DuQuesne.
  • Famed In-Story: Ariane proves to be this in Spheres of Influence, when she meets her first fan in the Arena, asking for her autograph.
  • Famous, Famous, Fictional:
    • A list of fictional creations that have become bywords for rogue-AI fears: Frankenstein, SkyNet, Monolith.
    • Ariane compares the Faith's ceremonial music to Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Satterli's "Jovian Themes".
    • The Hyperion Project fell after five of its subjects discovered the artificial nature of the environments they lived in and led a rebellion. The Five, as named in Spheres of Influence, include two from environments based on twentieth-century fiction and two from video games of subsequent centuries (and one whose origin is not yet clear).
  • The Fettered: Marc DuQuesne, who has kept his emotions, physical and mental abilities under tight rein while interacting with normal people. Against a bunch of xenophobic hostile aliens, however...
  • Floating Water: The gravity-less spaces between the Spheres include enormous spheroidal floating lakes and oceans.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: In Challenges of the Deeps, Vindatri greets each of his visitors in the form of a mentor figure (Ariane, for instance, sees her grandfather) before adopting an elegant inhuman-but-humanoid form when dealing with them all together. His true form really is the inhuman-but-humanoid form, which is a major plot twist because he's the first alien they've met who looks anything like a human.
  • Genre Throwback: To the pulp space opera of E. E. “Doc” Smith and his contemporaries.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The Hyperion Project.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The way the Hyperion Project came apart was a complete disaster.
  • Gone Mad From The Revelation: The fate of many of the Hyperion Project subjects, particularly Maria Susanna.
  • The Heart: Sun Wu Kung is specifically described as such by Mark, in comparison to the rest of The Five who engineered the downfall of the Hyperion Project.
  • Heavy Worlder: Invoked by the designers of the Hyperion Project. Marc DuQuesne is an example of the results.
  • Hive Mind: The majority of the Blessed-To-Serve.
  • Hollow World: The Spheres.
  • Humans Are Special:
    • Humans are more willing to take risks.
    • And on top of that, Word of God says that humans have a special ability that they've never noticed because they've only been competing against each other. (It's revealed in Challenges of the Deeps.)
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Most of the humans with regard to hand weapons. Of course, in the Solar System of GCA, the "simulators" are just as good as the real world (or can be: some people prefer to play with the realism dialed down).
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Dr. Wolfe, the Holy Grail's Southern-accented medical officer, gets at least one in each book in which she appears.
  • Labcoat of Science and Medicine: Invoked by Dr. Sandrisson, whose preferred outfit is a white suit of which the coat is tailored to resemble a lab coat.
  • Last of Their Kind: In Challenges of the Deeps, Vindatri is the last survivor of a humanoid race that flourished in the Arena millions of years ago.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: When additional details start coming out about the inhabitants of the Hyperion Project in Spheres of Influence, some are identified only by vague descriptions (a green-eyed redhead who's been a superspy since she before she was in college, a man in evening dress with some unspecified interest in spectres) or by things they said ("I don't believe in no-win scenarios", "Sore wa himitsu desu"). Challenges of the Deeps contains more along the same lines.
  • Magic-Powered Pseudoscience: In Challenges of the Deeps, the power of the Arena allows Simon and Marc to build impossible gadgets that don't work if anybody tries to copy them, even if they follow the same steps exactly. Marc's are based on the pseudoscience of his native fiction; the principle behind Simon's remains unclear. Since all the magical effects in the Arena are presumed to be actually powered by ancient precursor tech, it's really a case of Magic from Technology Powered Pseudoscience.
  • Man in White:
  • Mary Sue: In-universe, one of the characters in the Hyperion Project simulations was a woman named Maria-Susanna who was created to be (a) a non-canonical love interest for the main character of the simulationnote  and (b) a stand-in for her creator. Spheres of Influence reveals that she is one of the surviving Hyperions and that she... didn't take it well when she learned the circumstances of her creation.
  • Meaningful Rename: The leader — and only surviving member — of the Liberated goes by the name "Orphan".
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: In Spheres of Influence, Sethrik, leader of the Blessed-to-Serve at the Arena, starts out considering Ariane as a Worthy Opponent. His masters back home use their growing respect for each other to set a trap for Ariane — and for Sethrik himself, whose loyalty they've come to doubt. Sethrik's own thoughts on his loyalty are greatly clarified by the incident, and after he and Ariane have fought their way out of the trap together he resigns from the Faction of the Blessed and joins Orphan's Faction of the Liberated.
  • Nanobots: Commonly used, not considered especially scary. Used for in-flight ship repair ("Nanomaintenance"), medical support (medical nanos) and sensors and other purposes.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: Marc has a back-up pistol in sleeve holster.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed:
    • In Earth's solar system, AIs are possible but legally restricted, with the same applying to uploaded intellects, due to fears about rogue AI.
    • In the Arena, AIs and uploaded intellects simply don't work, and apparently even body modification past some as-yet-unspecified point will fail. The allowed level of transhumanism (and not just for humans, other species do it as well) is still reasonably high (enhanced reflexes, strength, healing nanites, etc.), and ubiquitous, so it's more 'no transhumans above this height can ride,' and most everyone tries to get their top people as close to their allowed line as possible, which varies a bit from species to species.
  • No Warping Zone: Sandrisson Drives, even when inactive, interfere with each other, which wouldn't be an example of No Warping Zone except that drives jump from the volume of a solar system to the artificial "Spheres" which are much smaller. A smallish number of ships occupying a Sphere can entirely prevent jumping from anywhere in the solar system.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: When DuQuesne is being pursued through the Shadeweavers' Faction House by Amas-Garao, Amas-Garao does this using actual teleportation.
  • Pardon My Klingon: Simon swears in Japanese. There are also a couple of instances of swearing being described instead of quoted, including that old standby, an invitation to perform an anatomically impossible act (which gets interesting when alien anatomy is involved).
  • Planet of Hats: Most of the groups that matter to the politics and the plot are those which are organized or naturally inclined to wear one hat. Strictly speaking, though, they're mostly multi-species organisations who share a common outlook because that's the basis of the organisation; only two species are pretty much uniform — the Blessed To Serve, who are controlled by super-AI overlords, and the Molothos, who hate everyone uniformly.
  • Platonic Cave:
    • The Hyperion Project took characters from fiction and raised people in simulations to make them into those characters, with excellent results apart from the ethical issues, the Mary Sue, and it all falling apart at the end.
    • Also what one of the characters assumes when they initially discover where they are and the impossibilities (such as artificial gravity) they see. Marc, having been been raised in such as environment responds rather negatively to the idea.
  • Power Incontinence: Ariane, after the climax of Grand Central Arena.
  • Precursors: The Voidbuilders built the Arena. There is no consensus on their motives, their continued existence, or their divinity. Even the brief glimpses of the closest thing to an inside like we have on them are unclear and contradictory.
  • Precursor Worship: Some of the factions worship the Voidbuilders as gods.
  • Relationship Upgrade: In Challenges of the Deeps, Ariane and Marc hook up, as do Simon and Oasis.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: The Molothos.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Simon Sandrisson's glasses are narrated as doing this from time to time. Sandrisson is one of the good guys, but he's not a person to mess with.
  • Shock and Awe:
    • The Shadeweaver's Energy Ball attack.
    • Ariane Austin has a contact-weapon biomod derived from electric eel biology.
  • Shout-Out: Lots and lots and lots — as shown in Spoor's canonical list (contains spoilers, of course). Here are a few of the more blatant ones:
  • Sliding Scale of Realistic Versus Fantastic: Unusual.
  • Space Elves: Vindatri in Challenges of the Deeps.
  • Space Opera: The Arenaverse is a deliberate attempt to bring the high stakes, big ideas concepts of the old pulps into the modern era.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: In Spheres of Influence, Sun Wu Kung shows the ability to speak with just about any animal in the Nexus and environs.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: They thought they'd invented your standard jump-into-hyperspace-to-shorten-distance drive. Then they found someone else got there — an entire universe of "there" — first.
  • Symbiotic Possession: In Spheres of Influence, Oasis Abrams is revealed to carry two minds. In her backstory, the body of one of the minds was dying, and the mind of Oasis Abrams was transferred into the brain of a Hyperion based on Kim Possible. By the time we meet her/them, their minds have sort of fused, creating a new amalgam personality.
  • Telescoping Staff: The Hyperion Project designed one, inspired by Sun Wukong's magic staff, for their recreation of Journey to the West. Ariane uses a copy of it as a weapon in one of the contests in Grand Central Arena. Wu shows up with the original in the sequel.
  • Time Abyss: Vindatri, introduced in Challenges of the Deeps, is so old that he's witnessed the first arrival of every race that now has a presence in the Arena — and some of them have been around for millions of years.
  • Training from Hell: The Hyperion Project, maybe.
  • Translator Microbes: The Arena provides.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: In Challenges of the Deep, Marc shows Ariane a picture of the scientist who created him and she recognizes her grandfather.
  • Unobtainium: Indestructible matter made of quarks, without bothering with atoms along the way.
  • Why Am I Ticking?: Room-temperature-superconductor loops built into your armor are no longer energy storage devices when they're above room temperature.
  • World in the Sky: Most of the volume of the Arena.
  • "World of Cardboard" Speech: Marc DuQuesne.
    Your mistake, you pea-brained overbearing pompous crayfish, is that you think you have any idea of what you're dealing with. [...] I was raised in gravity more than half again yours. I was built by people so insane they didn't realize what kind of a monster they designed, and spent half a century hiding what I am. [...] You brought it out, you son of a bitch. You made me let it out, and I don't know if I'll ever find myself again.
  • You Gotta Have Blue Hair: Ariane has blue hair, which she was born with as a legacy of genetic tinkering in one of her ancestors.

Alternative Title(s): Spheres Of Influence, Challenges Of The Deeps

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