Thursday, 14 October 1999

John Barnes: Orbital Resonance (1991)

Edition: Gollancz Millennium, 1998
Review number: 358

The front cover of this edition bears an endorsement from Orson Scott Card comparing Barnes to Robert Heinlein. On the basis of earlier Barnes novels, the John Brunner-like Mother of Storms and the brutal Kaleidoscope Century, this may seem rather a strange comparison to make. Yet Orbital Resonance is distinctly reminiscent of the best of Heinlein's books for teenagers, a tradition to which Card's own Ender's Game perhaps also belongs. (Orbital Resonance has a low-gravity game which is quite similar to that battle room in Ender's Game.

Set on a space station designed to aid the colonisation of Mars, the background to Orbital Resonance is a ruined Earth in only a few decades time. The satellite is the last bastion of the civilisation of mankind; there a group of gifted children are being conditioned to become the new elite of the human race. The novel takes the form of the journal of one of these children, Melpomene Murray, as they approach adulthood and a crisis in the form of a new arrival from Earth in their class.

Barnes also makes points about the way that the West lives today, by looking at how the relatively affluent children on the satellite see the lives of those remaining on Earth's surface, a place of continual famine and desperate want. Part of the school curriculum is a subject intended to enhance the children's understanding of and empathy for what is going on, yet they are virtually unaffected by the video footage, merely making such callous and stupid comments as "why don't they just grow more food?". They may be gifted, but they find it exceptionally difficult to understand any point of view different from the culture conditioned on them; another example is the complete incomprehension the narrator has as to why her word processor might possibly query the use of the word "clitoris" as "audience-inappropriate" (after all, girls on Earth must have them too).

Like Heinlein, Barnes manages to write convincingly as a bright teenage girl. (As a man in his thirties, I may not be the best judge of this, but he at least convinced me.) The sentimentality of Heinlein is absent, and Melpomene's crushing discovery of the years of manipulation at the hands of her parents is strongly handled.

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