Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Orbital Resonance by John Barnes

"We have a very small number of adults trying to raise a very large number of you into a culture that we just made up, one we don't have any emotional attachment to ourselves."
On the cover of my 1992 paperback edition of John Barnes' 1991 novel Orbital Resonance, Orson Scott Card compares Barnes to Heinlein, and on the back cover Poul Anderson compares Barnes to Heinlen.  Inside, on the "Praise for" pages, various SF periodicals do the same.  Well, I like Heinlein, so I thought I'd give Orbital Resonance a chance.

The year is 2024 and the Earth has been totally effed up by biological warfare, climate change and AIDS!  The only people to survive the catastrophes were those willing to do anything to survive.  Once these ruthless survivor types were in charge they came up with a scheme to save the Earth--space stations made from asteroids where things can be manufactured without damaging the Earth's environment, and where a new society of social-minded humans can be developed!

Our narrator is Melpomene Murray, thirteen-year-old daughter of a psychologist on the council ("CPB") who has played a major role in developing the new generation of communitarian people.  They live in Flying Dutchman, an asteroid in an orbit between Earth and Mars.  Melpomene is writing the book we are reading after having been enlisted by the CPB to produce propaganda that will help Earthers understand what life is like in space and convince them to think well of the space people.

The comparisons to Heinlein are quite apt--much of Orbital Resonance reads like a pastiche of "Menace from Earth" and the various juveniles, with a teenage girl as first-person narrator, describing her life in a space colony (we've got no room, no privacy, variable gravity, and we like it!) and teenage relationship dramas (a bully is mean to the new kid from Earth, girls worry about their figures and about boys liking them, Melpomene's brother is broken hearted because he is bad at computer programming class, there is a rift between Melpomene and her best friend Miriam because Miriam is paying attention to a boy, etc.)  The story also addresses philosophical issues that Heinlein often wrote about, like the tension between individualism and duty to society, when it is appropriate to obey authority and when it is appropriate to rebel, and the forms family and erotic relationships will take in the future.

Kids on the asteroid station are conditioned and hypnotized (Melpomene's father uses words like "designed" and "programmed") to fear breaking rules, to fear leaving Flying Dutchman, and to enjoy working in teams.  A math test, for example, is like a team sport; each student is given different problems, and the good students take time out to help the poor students because each student's score is affected by everybody else's score ("In Pyramid Math, your score is half your own plus one quarter the average of you and your partner, plus one eighth the average of your foursome,  and so forth....") If there is a fight in class every student gets punished.

Basically, the kids have been programmed to be a bunch of commies (Dad says "Individualism is dead because it didn't work,") but over the course of the book we see signs the programming is starting to break down.  The aforementioned bullying wasn't supposed to happen, for example, and an immigrant from Earth who cracks cruel jokes, Theophilus, starts everybody speaking their minds in antisocial ways ("'I've always thought things like that.  I bet other people have too.  We just never used to say them until Theophilus came up.'")  And when Melpomene realizes that so many of her attitudes and emotions, which feel totally natural, may be the result of tampering with her mind, she rebels.

Her rebellion, which occurs in the last seventy or so pages of the book, consists of hacking into CPB computer files with her boyfriend and eavesdropping on Dad.  She learns that she is, without her knowledge, being groomed to be ruler of the asteroid! Her brother is being manipulated into being an artist!  (He isn't really a bad computer programmer, the teachers just give him impossible problems so he will turn to his art. They also sabotage his sports career!)  Melpomene's boyfriend is being groomed to be the Flying Dutchman's captain!  The CPB also plan to outlaw labor unions and abolish elections soon.

Melpomene stops all the individualistic nastiness started by Theophilus (Winston Smith style, in the end Theophilus cheerfully joins the collective--he was just reenacting the cruelty he learned on Earth and now sees the error of his ways.) Melpomene also convinces the CPB to abandon all their manipulations of the kids as well as their plans of getting rid of unions and elections.  In fact, the adults who were born on Earth agree to leave the asteroid and move to Mars (which is in the process of being terraformed.)  Life on Earth with its violence and individualism has made the adults unfit to rule, so like Moses who lead his people to the promised land but could not enter it, they are leaving the space-born teenagers they programmed to run The Flying Dutchman without them!  

I wanted to like this book more than I did; its milieu is interesting and Barnes has interesting ideas, but Orbital Resonance is just too long (218 pages) and repetitive. The little Stakhanovs play sports all the time, so we get many long detailed scenes in which various low gee sports are explained to us; these are followed by long detailed scenes in which we follow the course of a match. I never watch sports if I can avoid it, and I don't read about sports either, and my eyes glazed over a bit during the sports scenes, and these scenes are legion.  (I should have kept track; I swear a third of the novel takes place in gyms and race tracks.)  I didn't care who won when I had to watch my wife's nieces and nephews play soccer, so I'm not likely to care if high school kids who aren't even real win or lose at sports that aren't even real.

(Jack Vance in his Alastor books and Demon Princes books has speculative sports scenes, but in the former the sport, hussade, has bizarre erotic overtones, and in the latter the sport, hadaul, is a blood sport, and in both series the sports directly serve the plot and are played for high stakes.  The sports are boring and the stakes are low in the sports scenes in Orbital Resonance.)

The scenes of relationship drama can also get repetitive.  There are numerous sexual relationships, teenage friendships, and parent-child relationships depicted in Orbital Resonance.  The kids on the Flying Dutchman, I guess thanks to their "programming," are really into expressing their feelings, and so all these relationships involve lots of hand holding, hugging, and crying.  I should have kept count; I swear somebody cries or gets a hug every five pages--usually both.

I like the kind of tragic love stories we read in Somerset Maugham and Marcel Proust, and I liked the teenage relationship drama in Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover, but the soap opera suds in Barnes's novel didn't interest me.  As with the sports stuff, I think this is partly because the stakes are low.  In Maugham and Proust people's amorous relationships result in lives being ruined; scenes of twelve-year-olds having crushes and pawing each other in a dark corridor or arguing with their parents have little emotional impact because we know even if they are crying today over a slight or a rejection they'll be over it tomorrow.

Another weakness of Barnes's novel, at least when comparing him to Vance, Maugham, and Lee as I just have, is the style.  Barnes's style is not bad, but it is bland. The novel inspires very little feeling.  One reason Lee's teenage relationship shenanigans pull at the heart strings while Barnes's just sit there is because Lee has a compelling, affecting style, and Barnes does not.  

I'm scoring Orbital Resonance as marginally positive/acceptable: I certainly don't like it as much as Card, Anderson, or the many other people who did their part providing the novel with over three pages of ecstatic blurbs.  What do they like so much about it?  Maybe after two decades of the New Wave some were happy to see an old-fashioned semi-realistic "life on a space station" story.  Maybe some approved Barnes's criticisms of our individualistic society (we don't hug and cry enough and we aren't doing enough about climate change and AIDS.)  Maybe some liked the stuff about teenagers groping each other and masturbating.  Orbital Resonance has virtues, but for me it is hobbled by a bland style and excessive length; my lack of interest in sports and computer hacking, and my devotion to the cult of the individual, also didn't help.

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