King of Infinite Space, Allen Steele

Harper Collins, 1997, 312 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105286-8

Admit it: You just want to be immortal.

No, don’t try this surprised air with me. Nor some half-hearted excuse about how infinite longevity would be infinitely boring. You just want to be able to laugh at evolution, at interest rates and at seasonal fashions. You want to escape the blink that is the human life-span, the ridiculous amount of time that we waste a full third of by sleeping more or less soundly.

So, what are you going to do about it? Wait until nanotech cooks up a few nanodocs? But what if that takes too much time? Or if you’re pretty sure not to last until then?

Well, there’s always cryogenics. Pay a fortune in cold hard cash! Stay cool for centuries! Become a corpscicle and amaze all your friends! Be the first one on your block to have a one-way ticket to the future!

That’s more or less what happens to William Alec Tucker III, the young protagonist of Allen Steele’s A King of Infinite Space. After the particularly memorable 1995 St-Louis edition of Lollapalooza, Alec dies in a car crash only to wake up two centuries later as a brain-damaged idiot, courtesy of rich guilt-ridden parents…

He soon recovers his mental faculties, and discovers that he’s now a slave of a powerful, shady character along with a few dozen other “deadheads.” Of course, he’ll try to escape…

A King of Infinite Space is a novel of almost-Heinleinian verve, of lovely narration, of strongly-plotted narrative, of imaginative detail and of some fast-paced action.

Unfortunately, it’s also a cheat.

Part of the problem resides in the protagonist. As a drug-using, spoiled, selfish, unfocused young man who’s more an overgrown teenager than anything else, Alec might be a terrific storyteller, but he’s also a terribly unsympathetic character. Of course, this being a coming-of-age novel, he’ll have to grow up. His path toward maturity is fraught with the usual escapes, fights and hard lessons. And then-

Then there’s the structure of the novel, which doesn’t involve the reader until Alec can finally act against something and make a hero out of himself. Then the novel becomes gripping, and despite a few misgivings about the remainder of the book, this is clearly the work of someone who knows his stuff: Allen Steele has almost won over a new fan here. The tension rises and rises as Alec fights against superior opponents and teach a few things to a few traitors. And then-

Then Steele pulls the rugs from under our feet and we’re as helpless as poor Alec as he’s told that his dazzling deeds of derring-do were carefully allowed, encouraged or predicted. His victory is as hollow as the asteroid he started on, and the extent of the manipulations exerted on him are as stunning as they are disappointing. He is -as we are- completely dismissed. In other words, ha-ha, it was almost a dream.

That’s a cheat. That’s a cop-out. That was unfortunately also the only way to conclude the novel… but it’s still cheap.

So, if being corpsicled is still too expensive an option to visit the future, grab A King of Infinite Space at the nearest library. It’s a good read, it’s even quite pulse-pounding by moments, but don’t get too excited: It’s all a dream. Or almost so.

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