Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Feb 05 14:17:36 EST 1992

Raymond's Reviews #170

%T Orbital Resonance
%A John Barnes
%D December 1991
%O paperback, US$17.95
%P 214
%G ISBN 0-312-85206-1

What a very odd creature this novel is! An ersatz-Heinleinian coming-of-age novel by an anti-individualist --- one that succeeds only because the logic of the plot fatally undercuts the author's own agenda.

It is 2025. The asteroid habitat "Flying Dutchman" may be the last hope for funnelling Earthward the space resources that an Earth ravaged by war and eco-disaster desperately needs. Melpomene Murray and her friends have been raised there in a "cultural neoconstruct" designed to shape them into ideal spacecrew.

The habitat's kids are elitist, driven, fiercely intelligent, and imprinted for ferocious group solidarity and loyalty to their home. All this is in accordance with the secret master plan designed by their parents, the habitat's architects and first generation. Privacy and individualism are simply null concepts to these kids. Manipulated from birth, they throw all their energy into academic competition and zero-gee team sports. And they're happy.

This, Barnes seems to be saying, is the way humans ought to live to function best. And there can't be much doubt he means it; in person he cops to being a Marxist, the one character in the book who identifies with individualist values (Melpomene's mother) is presented as a failure, and Melpomene's father says to her "Individualism is dead because it didn't work".

But a funny thing happens on the way to the moral. A new kid up from Earth triggers stresses among the now-adolescent kids that reflect in small a fact we aren't told in large until later; the master plan is failing.

All this is told from the point of view of Melpomene, a bright, likeable and very Heinleinian kid. Her friends are forming cliques for sexual and primate-political reasons, she's excluded, and she's lonely. She feels as though her life has gone crazy --- and, on top of everything else, she's got this dumb writing assignment to do an autobiographical book about life on the Dutchman, which is what we're ostensibly reading.

The supreme irony in this book is that its climax comes in an incident of mob violence induced by the collectivist tribal mores of the kids, and that Melpomene averts a disaster by the exercise of individual courage and an instant (and correct) evaluation that the group is wrong.

Thus, the day is saved by an attack of the very individualism Melpomene's culture has defined out of all but a minority of `Special Category' children. Scant pages later the adults transfer out to Mars, leaving the kids in command. Social engineering has failed.

Perhaps the book reflects Barnes's ambivalence about living in a world where Marxism is clearly headed to join the Divine Right of Kings in the graveyard of evils that failed. Perhaps his intelligence has subverted his own conscious convictions. In any case, this book is a perfect reflection of the confusion any collectivist has to feel in 1992, with individualism and free-market capitalism so definitely in the ascendant that some have (prematurely) spoken of `the end of history'.

And yes, Barnes is a terrifically good writer. By all means read this book. Savor its paradoxes. And watch for his next novel.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Feb 05 14:17:36 EST 1992

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>