Warner Aspect, 2002, 290 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61081-X
There was a time, early in John Barnes’ career, when Science Fiction commentators tried to nominate him as one of the numerous “New Heinleins” that were supposed to take the grandmaster’s place. The comparison never quite fit (Barnes’ depiction of violence alone would disqualify him, let alone the pessimism that can mark some of his work), but there has always been something in his prose to prompt the association.
With The Duke of Uranium, the potential for comparison is even more obvious than usual: It doesn’t take more than a chapter to understand that this is what a Heinlein juvenile would look like had it been strained through the past fifty years. Living in a space colony called The Hive where collectivism is the norm, Jak Jinnaka is a young man who loves to play the bad boy, something that’s less charming now that he’s at the end of an educational cycle. But his life spins out of his control when he learns that people around him aren’t all what they appear to be: His uncle is a spymaster and his girlfriend is a princess. Both of these relationships comes into play when he’s instructed to go rescue his kidnapped girlfriend.
What follows is a romp through part of a far-future solar system, and this is where the classic John Barnes touch truly distinguishes itself. The Duke of Uranium could have been just another middle-drawer SF adventure to feed the undemanding hordes browsing the SF section, but here a simple adventure becomes a canvas on which several fascinating ideas can play off each other. There’s The Wager, for instance, an ill-defined set of maxims and conventions that have come to rule human society. There’s the aftermath of the Human/Rubahy war looming over everyone, as remote arbitrators may decide to wipe out both races for daring to go to war against each other. The solar system is a collection of fragmented entities and social systems that somehow manage to work together. A good chunk of the book is spent in-transit from the Hive to buck-shot Earth by way of Mercury, but we see only a small part of the whole picture. Further entries in the series will presumably map other areas of the solar system.
Depsite my aversion to series, this is a good thing: If you like The Duke of Uranium, you will be asking for more. Further inviting comparisons with Heinlein, Barnes here adopts a crystal-clear narration that wisely lets the characters speak in all their chatty charm. Barnes uses future slang like few other writers would have the guts to do, but it does hang together well, and after a while it just becomes another element of hanging out with Jik and his toves. (Language geeks will have fun trying to piece together the various roots of the slang.)
The prose style has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost golden-age SF but handled with a modern post-Varley sensitivity. Such contemporary touches include fairly liberal sexual mores among Jik’s cohort and hints of fairly dark forces at play somewhere above our characters’ heads, which will probably become more important later during the series given Barnes’ fondness for nastiness. (A prologue suggests that Jak will become notorious, reckless and not universally loved.)
Fans of Barnes work are probably going to tear through this book in the hope of catching some of Barnes’ usual social speculations, and they won’t be disappointed: beyond the intriguing world-building mentioned above, there is eventually some fascinating material about conspiracies to influence human society (a very, very illegal thing to do in this universe) and hints of deeper developments later on. For ex-fans of John Barnes put off by his occasional bleakness, this is one of his “safe” novels: the relatively tame violence mostly happens to people who deserve it, the sex is consensual and no apocalypse happens during the book, though we’re led to understand that this is an unusually calm period in human history.
It adds up to a very satisfying book with the roaring pace of a YA novel, infused with enough big ideas to keep even the most reluctant adult SF readers interested. This may not be a classic in any sense of the term (indeed, it almost feels like a vacation for everyone involved), but it’s a novel in which everything clicks: the setting, the characters, the prose and the plotting all achieve a nice synergy, and the result is good enough not only to keep us coasting to the end, but to make us look forward to the sequel. Bring on A Princess of the Aerie!