Tag Archives: Allen Steele

Chronospace, Allen Steele

Ace, 2001, 320 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00906-9

The beauty of time-travel stories is that they’re purely intellectual games. Despite tantalizing speculations from time to time, there is little factual evidence that time-travel is scientifically possible, making the entire concept indifferent to new discoveries. Unlike other types of Science Fiction, the time-travel sub-genre is essentially feeding upon itself in sort of a game in which authors bring their best ideas to the table. It’s one of the purest example of the kind of conversation that can be found in literary genres. Sort of the SF equivalent to closed-room mysteries: every writer’s got to do one at some point. So when Allen Steele tackles time-travel in Chronospace, he better both acknowledge the ongoing state of the genre and bring something new to the discussion.

Steele being a proud and acknowledged hard-SF genre writer, he doesn’t miss a trick to show that he’s done his homework in the time-travelling genre: he name-checks not only Analog magazine (in which one of his protagonists publishes a thought experiment with far-reaching consequences), but also gives SF writer Gregory “Timescape” Benford a small walk-on cameo. References to past concepts and stories make it clear that Steele is riffing off familiar tunes and playing by genre rules. A bibliography of sources (historical, scientific and science-fictional) completes the book. It helps, in some strange sense, that the novel is an expansion of a previous short story published in Analog, “Where angels fear to tread”: you really can’t hammer down Chronospace more firmly in the genre playground if you tried.

But what does Steele himself bring to the discussion? In some ways, the genre references are part of it: Chronospace is in part a reflexion on the power of Science Fiction in potentially altering our future (and, positing time-travel technology, our past as well). The title of the third section, “Free Will” alludes to the other big subject of contemplation that’s become one of the central paradoxes of time-travel as a dramatic concept: What if the malleability of history removes the assumption that free will exists? Steele, as he travels between past, present and future, mulls over such issues and has some fun with the established conventions of time-travel as it inevitably leads to alternate history. For confirmed SF fans, it’s like hearing a good cover of a music piece we particularly enjoy, with a number of extra twangs and zings to make it different.

On the other hand, Chronospace (like many of Steele’s novels) doesn’t venture all that far away from comfy familiarity. As familiar as it seems, it’s also a bit dull in the way so characteristic of mid-list SF fillers, lacking either the intellectual inferno of first-grade Science Fiction or the top-notch writing of superior fiction. It’s readable and interesting enough, mind you, and there’s a public for that type of thing. (A public that even includes me most sunny days of the week.) But if Steele does a fine job a contextualizing where Chronospace takes place in the SF discourse, he doesn’t do much to advance the discussion. In convention panel terms, Chronospace is the guy who summarizes well the discussion so far, but is timid in venturing any further.

Even in historical terms, Steele’s carefully-researched details fail to convince. The Hindenburg as a crucial piece of Nazi resolve? Allow me my doubts as I point to an entire geopolitical framework. On a smaller scale, the characters make stupid mistakes that seriously belies their putative professionalism at the whole time-travel business. Meh. Welcome to by-the-numbers plotting.

But I’m being too harsh. Not every book has to change the genre as we know it: As a certified genre SF geek, I should be happy that someone is stoking over the coals of time-travel and throwing another log on the fire: It keeps the conversation going and it gives us something to do during lazy Sunday afternoons. For a type of discussion that’s been feeding upon itself since H.G. Wells, a competent recap really isn’t all that bad.

Lunar Descent, Allen Steele

Ace, 1991, 325 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-50485-X

All too often, catching up on an author’s entire oeuvre is an exercise akin to completing a puzzle. You’ll read the most available/important/distinctive works first, then work your way to, eventually, the rest of the picture. Whenever you do complete your work, though, you might find out that the smaller pieces illuminate something unexpected in the panorama.

So it was that I began to read Allen Steele with his ninth book, and gradually worked my way to the rest of them in time. With Lunar Descent, Steele’s third novel, I finally put in the missing puzzle piece, and it all forms an interesting portrait.

Orbital Decay was about a semi-rebellion among workers building a space station. Clarke County, Space was about a semi-rebellion among residents of a space station. Lunar Descent… is about a semi-rebellion among workers on the moon. Okay, so the details differ (Clarke County, Space isn’t about the rebellion, though it happens shortly after in the same timeline and Lunar Descent is about a strike action), but at this stage we’re merely playing with words. Suffice to say that some recurring themes do figure pro-eminently in Steele’s fiction.

The style, too, has similarities. Most of his novel are built around straight-ahead prose supplemented by other forms of writing; interviews, oral testimonies, media articles, etc…

Both of the above similarities, make sense when you know about Steele’s background as an investigative journalist before he started writing SF full-time. It’s no accident if he’s one of the most liberal SF writers in the business. His blue-collar characters like to have chemically-influenced fun, disrespect authority and do the job their pointy-haired managers have assigned them.

The protagonists of Lunar Descent are no exception. Our “moondogs” are the few, the brave, the proud men and women mining ore on the moon for the Solar Power Satellite projects back on Earth Orbit. Think about those hard-workin’ oil rig personnel and you’ll have a fair idea of their mindset. Sure, they get high and mean from time to time, but -wink, wink- work hard, play hard, right?

Apparently, the evil corporate villains of Steele’s fiction don’t think so, and before long they tighten the screws on operations, replacing half the personnel, finding a wholly unsuitable station manager, clamping down on “non-essential” imports and generally doing everything in their power to be completely unlikable. Boo! Hiss! Fight da power!

So our guys strike, and unfortunately, their evil managers declare their SPS work crucial to national economic indicators, and send in the space marines to quell the rebellion. So it’s exoskeleton-boosted marines against weaponless marines. Who will win? Well, yeah, but not in the way you’d expect, fortunately.

All and all, even though we’d seen this before, Lunar Descent is a success because of its likable characters, the vivid description of life in a workplace 300,000 kilometers away, the snappy writing and the good humor with which Steele nails down the essential details. Some stuff doesn’t ring true (why is it, for instance, that characters born in the 80s or 90s will always be fascinated by the same classic-rock enjoyed by the author? Hmm.) and Steele’s usual biases make the action predictable at times, but no matter; here’s another solid hard-SF book well worth your time and money. Lunar Descent is what the SF mid-list is all about.

Oceanspace, Allen Steele

Ace, 2000, 375 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00685-X

All throughout his SF career (now spanning 11 books in little more than a decade) Allen Steele has shown a remarkable writing talent somehow not fully exploited.

From the orbital space station of Orbital Decay to the watery depths of Oceanspace, Steele has made some progress, but it’s hard to say if he’s a better writer now than before. His books always seem to struggle at the “good read” level (eg; Clarke County, Space), never somehow going further than that (Labyrinth of Night), or when they do, they contain a crucial flaw that destroys the book (A King of Infinite Space, his best but also his most frustrating work). Fortunately, his short stories are usually more satisfying than his novels, proving once again that some people are simply more suited to shorter-length stories.

Part of it has to do with his point of view. Steele is one of the few staunchly liberal SF writers in a genre traditionally dominated by conservative ideology. He has written stories praising drug usage (Orbital Decay), blasting eeevil governments (The Jericho Equation) and his stint as a journalist on an alternative weekly paper has left indelible marks on his fiction (again, see The Jericho Equation and, to a lesser extent, All-American Alien Boy). In The Tranquillity Alternative, one of the characters is revealed early on to be a lesbian, virtually ensuring her of a “get out of jail free” card: No way is Steele going to pin the bad-guy role on such a target.

That’s not the biggest problem with The Tranquillity Alternative, but it’s emblematic of Steele’s lack of sophisticated plotting. Set in an alternate world where the Americans had a space program much, much earlier and then stopped after establishing a moon base, The Tranquillity Alternative is a travelogue in which a last mission to the moon base is perturbed by a terrorist plan. Most of the book is spent travelling to the moon, waiting for something to happen. Then the terrorists do something, the heroes fight back, win and go home. The end.

The alternate space program is well thought-out (inscribing itself in the steps of Stephen Baxter, another writer who’s spent a lot of time in parallel space expeditions) but the rest of the world isn’t as well put-together. The synchronicity of events between the two universes (going as far as having identical dates to similar events) is either eerie or sign of a hasty world-building, depending on charitable you feel at this moment.

The result is interesting, and readable as always, but given Steele’s talents, may we not expect more? That’s also pretty much the tagline to any review of Oceanspace, the latest of Steele’s novels.

Here, Steele leaves space and goes undersea, again mimicking a minor SF trend (what with the undersea novels of Arthur C. Clarke—to whom the book is dedicated- and Peter Watts’ recent Starfish), which is fine as long as he’s got something new to bring to the genre. Unfortunately, Steele hangs a few standard plots and characters to the ocean setting for a result that’s quite entertaining, but at the same time very familiar. Nipick: The presence of CD players in 2011 is unexpectedly jarring; what about MP3?

But give Steele some credit; here, the journalist isn’t a good person, marital harmony is praised and the traitors are punished. Oceanspace has the characteristics of a good paperback read, though it is definitely overpriced as a hardcover; the idea density simply isn’t there. There’s a sea monster, true, but don’t get too excited as it only make incidental appearances.

Briefly put, Steele remains at the threshold between good entertainment and good SF, hovering between the two as if he’s unable to find the really good idea and build the really exciting plot to take his books to the next level. You can’t really go wrong by buying a Steele paperback (except, perhaps, for King of Infinite Space) because they’re always exact, fun and readable, but don’t bother springing for the hardcover.

Labyrinth of Night, Allen Steele

Ace, 1992, 340 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-46741-5

Some books are sold by their cover illustration.

I had been fascinated by Labyrinth of Night‘s cover art ever since I first saw it in a book collection of Bob Eggleton’s paintings. It shows, in warm reds and oranges, human astronauts peering over a Martian landscape complete with pyramids and human face sculpted into rock. Never mind that all that Cydonia stuff is silly beyond belief; the cover illustration was lovely.

Both halves of the novel begin after the initial awed look at Cydonia. Humans have investigated the site, and found an interior labyrinth of deadly puzzles. The last one isn’t about mathematics or physics, but about music… and so authorities draft one rebel musician to come investigate. While he isn’t too pleased to make the Earth/Mars trip, everyone else has bigger problems as things are heating up on Mars between the Russian and the American military forces.

This first part of the novel uses standard narrative segments intercut with pseudo-journalistic excerpts as Steele’s universe is introduced to the reader. This device disappears in the latter part of the book, which takes place two years later and could easily constitute a standalone novel by itself. Though Labyrinth of Night isn’t a fixup, it does feel like an expansion of an original novella. One could quibble with Steele’s unconvincing characterization of military personnel and his knee-jerk antigovernementalism, but the result is still decent hard-SF reading, and that is not something to be dismissed lightly.

Clarke Country, Space doesn’t have the benefit of an eye-popping cover, but holds up fairly well on its own. It was published before Labyrinth of Night and technically presents anterior events, though there is not direct link between the two novels. (Even so, a single line in Labyrinth of Night pretty much sums up the aftermath of Clarke County, Space though the event described doesn’t happen in the earlier novel.)

Clarke County is a space colony, comfortably hosting humanity’s first extraterrestrial community. Discounting the occasional Church of Elvis convention, things are going pretty well. But as it all too often happens with these space colonies, some think that independence would be a Really Good idea… So what do we expect to read? Another Independence-war-story in space, right?

Wrong! For all its setup, back cover blurb and front-cover slogan (“It’s a piece of the sky worth fighting for”), Clarke County, Space ends up being a novel about a mafia assassin pursuing his victim on a space colony, and the Navajo sheriff tracking down the killer. Unexpected, isn’t it? This novel reads a lot like the first part of Labyrinth of Night, a fast-paced prologue to something bigger. But as most Steele fans know, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a rejection; Clarke County, Space is a good read in its own right, with plenty of bigger throwaway pieces cheerfully handed out to the reader in the framing story.

As always, readers of Allen Steele novels can expect some fast-paced adventures, told in a clear and enjoyable prose. Both Clarke County, Space and Labyrinth of Night show very well the strengths (and weaknesses) of this underappreciated hard-SF practitioner.

All-American Alien Boy, Allen Steele

Ace, 1996, 267 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00460-1

Several reviewers, yours included- have often commented of the different approach used by Allen Steele’s brand of science-fiction. Though he has shown his ability to write hard-SF like the best of them, he approaches his subject from a bottom-up perspective. He writes about the common man in exceptional situations, the worker who implements the grandiose plans for tomorrow. Orbital Decay starred criminals, dull-witted construction workers, insane officers and failed SF writers. The Jericho Iteration‘s protagonist was, like Steele, a St-Louis investigative journalist.

With this background, the unusual focus of the stories collected in All-American Alien Boy all makes sense. His first collection (Rude Astronauts) was heavily concerned about the usual space exploration SF subject matter. (Though not, as Steele writes in his introduction to his second collection, “set mainly in outer space” [P.xiii]) All American Alien Boy is different, concentrating on near-future SF and historical alternate histories. Few stories are set in more than twenty years. The title refers to the adaptability required to cope with today’s pace of change; we are all a bit more alien than ever before.

As a big supporter of author introductions to stories in collection, I was pleased to note that Steele wrote substantial introductions to his stories, detailing sources of inspiration and occasionally getting on soapboxes. Most introductions are interesting, some less so and others (like the last half of his introduction to the collection) simply pedantic. Still, it’s appreciated.

As for the stories themselves, they’re vintage Steele: A clear and elegant style with occasional structural experimentation. Fortunately, there’s more variety than in Rude Astronaut. Like most novelists who started out as journalists, Steele’s prose goes straight to the story without useless detours. It’s no surprise if the two weakest stories of the collection (“See Rock City” and “A letter from St.Louis”, though the latter is from the perspective of a journalist… in 1900) are written with more elaborate style. It’s the more classical stories that shine.

“Jonathan Livingstone Seaslug” owes a lot to Arthur C. Clarke, as Steele mentions in his introduction, and the result is a tale worthy of the master himself… though the conclusion is obvious early on.

I thought that despite a fascinating premise, “Lost in the Shopping Mall” could have been stronger. No matter; it’s good enough as it is.

“Whinin’ Boy Blues” is the sort of SF story that I like to read, with high-tech gadgets, unusual situations, an action-oriented plot and a happy finale. Just ignore the strange title.

“Doblin’s Lecture” is sociological SF, with a touch of psychological horror. Thought-provoking and with an effect that’s ultimately contrary to what we may expect, a characteristic also shared with “The Good Rat”.

Finally, I hope this review is just and equitable, because “Hunting Wabbitt” is a great revenge fantasy, from an author to a bad critic.

No interplanetary spaceships, no aliens. A few giant robots, VR addiction, sea monsters and a crashed SSTO, but that’s as wild as we get. Still, a good author doesn’t have to rely on gadgets and All American Alien Boy is a pretty good collection. You could do worse than take a look at it.

Orbital Decay, Allen Steele

Ace, 1989, 324 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-49851-5

Science-Fiction, for all its vaunted capacity to extrapolate logically into the future, is often an awfully unrealistic literature. Consider one of the genre’s flagship universe: Star Trek. In the first two television series, everything ran smoothly on the Enterprise: Few crewmembers disagreed with each others (when they did, it was a sign of alien possession), everyone had comfortable living space (no one complained about cramped quarters, at least), nobody was bored or burnt out, the food was great… In short, quasi-utopia in space. From Star Trek, we were meant to interpret this as a better future, with better specimens of humanity that never bickered, bawled or belched.

Our “real” future is likely to be very different.

Allen Steele is not your typical Science-Fiction writer either. His “real job”, before writing SF, was being an investigative journalist for an alternative paper. This, to say the least, differs somewhat from the usual SF writer, who either goes through science, engineering or Eng.Lit. degrees before putting pen to paper. This difference has permeated his fiction: Steele is interested in the blue-collar guy, the working man who makes it happen, not the scientist, the engineer or the politician who makes grandiose plans.

Orbital Decay might be the novel that most clearly illustrates this difference yet. It’s the story of the blue-collar workers who actually have to build those fancy new solar power satellites and space stations. These workers aren’t exactly very bright, nor completely at ease with the law. Stuck away in a tin can without sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, they’ll soon rectify matters…

Orbital Decay distances itself with glee from the squeaky-clean futures of SF: The only engineer in the novel is a space-sick spoiled brat who’s there for maybe three scenes. The commander of the construction project is a picture-perfect astronaut who believes that space is for a superior breed of man: he becomes insane. The government is installing a device to overhear all telephone conversations across the globe. The new hydroponic technician brings up marijuana seeds. Two (2!) of the main characters are on the run from the law.

The resulting book is a novel that has plenty of potential to annoy the readers more comfortable with the “good old (conservative) stuff” of SF. Your reviewer (a straight arrow if there was one) anticipated the drug subplot with dread, even though it finally wasn’t as bad as expected. (The characters come to the same conclusion as anyone with a brain would foretell in five second: Drugs are dangerous in space, for even worse reasons than drinking is dangerous in a car.)

Unfortunately, the stupidity of the drug subplot brought this reviewer to reflect on the other absurdities of the novel. So Bruce can’t request a tape deck for weight reasons, but can bring in a lot of cassettes? So none of the construction wroekrs can communicate down there while ham operators can do it with our current-day astronauts? So they’re limited to PG movies tapes while satellites around them are broadcasting the Spice Channel? Granted, the novel is now ten years old, but the concept of next-generation launchers like the Delta Clipper has been kicking around for a while… are we still supposed to believe that it still costs X,000$ per pound to ship stuff into space? Add to that the unlikeliness of a corporation signing up the first-arrived (like, uh, criminals on the run?) as space construction workers. What do they do now for oil rig crews?

Don’t be mistaken: For all its faults, Orbital Decay is an acceptable novel, bringing a unique perspective to SF’s assumption. But it isn’t as good as it think it is. To challenge the basics, one must be sure to understand them correctly. But that, would say Steele, is exactly the kind of reaction he was aiming for. So don’t be discouraged by this review and pick up Orbital Decay. If nothing else, it’s a darn good read.

The Jericho Iteration, Allen Steele

Ace, 1994, 279 pages, C$25.95 hc, ISBN 0-441-00097-5

It has become something of a cliché to set future stories in California against a backdrop dominated by the aftermath of a massive Earthquake. On the other coast, at least one novel dealt with a devastating earthquake on New York (Charles Scarborough’s Aftershock). Few writers, however, have examined the effect of an earthquake on non-coastal areas of the United States.

Enters Allen Steele, who lived a few years in Saint Louis. An ex-investigative reporter and freelance journalist, Steele is now regarded as one of the most promising hard-SF writer to have entered the field during the past decade.

In The Jericho Iteration, Steele departs from his usual future history to look at a future Saint-Louis devastated by an major (Richter 7.5) earthquake. The year is 2013 and the hero is Gerry Rosen, an investigative reporter for one of the devastated town’s alternative newspapers.

Even almost a year after the disaster, Saint-Louis is far from being back to its old levels of comfort. Indeed, thousands of homeless people are roaming the city and government officials have instituted martial law over the city, enforced by troopers who take an almost-sadistic delight in their work.

The sad life of Gerry Rosen (grieving father, estranged husband, alcoholic journalist) is thrown out of whack when someone contact him with information not meant for his ears. Soon, bodies begin to pile up and Rosen must not only save himself, but also find out the truth…

The Jericho Iteration is, in short, a standard “lone-investigator-against-conspiracy” story told reasonably well. The first-person narration is up to Steele’s usual high standards. Most readers, however, will have seen most of the plot elsewhere. At least three times, the next plot point can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy. The novel is even less successful when considered from a dynamic perspective: Rosen doesn’t evolve a lot (even acknowledging the fact during the last pages) and remains as mildly unlikeable as in the beginning.

There are a few good scenes here and there; I especially liked the resolution of the “laser sniper” episode. The conclusion is not as strong as it might have been, but Steele obviously wanted to wrap everything up in as short a time as possible. Just ignore the fact that Rosen’s presence by the end of the story is rather less than essential to the resolution of the plot…

Certain SF elements, like “Ruby Fulcrum”, are handled without many surprises and with assumptions that would be more adapted to SF movies than written works. Otherwise, good use is made of the gadgets, especially during the otherwise unsatisfying finale.

But even with this substandard effort, Steele manages to deliver a competent action/adventure SF thriller. While your time and money would be best spent on something better, The Jericho Iteration is not exactly a bad choice.

Rude Astronauts, Allen Steele

Ace, 1995, 263 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00184-X

As a self-proclaimed Hard-Science-Fiction fan, it seemed a bit strange that I came to discover Allen Steele only recently, several novels after his debut in the SF field. But I’m finally catching up, and read A King of Infinite Space last spring. While that novel suffered from a cheapening conclusion, the remainder of the narrative was so good as to encourage me to read other material by Steele.

Which brings us to Rude Astronauts, Steele’s first collection of short stories. Ten stories, five short science non-fiction articles. Not even a dollop of fantasy in sight.

A collection always offer a good portrait of an author’s common themes and approaches. If nothing else, Rude Astronauts convinced me that Steele was an author worth reading. Steele obviously knows his science stuff: The technical details are impeccable, the science is integral to the stories and the attitude is quintessential hard-SF. Furthermore, Steele writes with a style that’s both journalistic-clear and with a potent stylistic kick. The Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, in particular, represents Steele at his best.

The fun thing is that Steele writes hard-SF but, contrarily to other practicers of the art, knows the real world. His stories are not about the scientists who think about stuff, but about the mechanics, the technicians, the grunts who take the scientists’s plans and make them into tangible reality. This working-class perspective is unique and refreshing.

Rude Astronauts is divided in three parts. The first, Near Space, is easily the best: Pure hard-SF, with a perspective far removed from the usual squeaky-clean portrayal of space exploration. Here, stories about beer in space, retired astronauts, work-caused deaths in space and Martian music. There’s the Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, a series of tall tales heard (where else?) in Diamondback Jack’s, a rough bar catering to the Cape Canaveral blue-collar crowd. They make interesting companions to Spider Robinson’s fudgy-goody Callahan’s sequence.

The second part is Alternate Space, two stories about an alternate history where the Americans and Nazis first competed for space exploration and humans landed on Mars in 1974. Both stories are told in an appropriate pseudo-historical-journalistic style. “Goddard’s people” will probably make more sense with people already familiar with wartime american scientists, but “John Harper Wilson” is a good tale of… well, why spoil it?

The third part is not quite as hard-SF. It’s called “Contemporary Space” and presents, quite appropriately, contemporary tales. One, “Hapwood’s Hoax” is a clever examination of the uneasy relationship between SF and the lunatic UFO fringe. Some will see it as a retelling of Scientology; I just consider it a pretty good yarn. “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” is a run-of-the-mill techno-thriller about spies and advanced technology. “Trembling Earth” is a thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park, but nastier, and with a lovely kicker that catches you by surprise.

Interestingly, “Live from the Mars Hotel”, “Hapgood’s Hoax”, “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” and “Trembling Earth” all share a common storytelling structure, which is of either a series of interview of people connected to events, or the “official” version of events (usually during a testimony) intercut with what “really” happened. Coupled with the Diamondback Jack’s trilogy and the pseudo-journalistic approach to the Alternate Space stories, it makes a slightly repetitive effect when read back-to-back like this.

But even then, Rude Astronauts is a good collection. Easily readable, well-written, in the mould of the best classical hard-SF but with a modern varnish of its own, it’s the kind of short fiction that I’ll read again with pleasure.

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.