Growing up in a space dystopia: John Barnes’s Orbital Resonance

Orbital Resonance (1991) is one of my favourite John Barnes novels, and I re-read it to take the taste of Kaleidoscope Century out of my brain. This didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. On the one hand, Orbital Resonance could be a Heinlein juvenile—it’s about kids growing up on a captured asteroid looping between Earth and Mars, about teenagers finding out they’ve been manipulated and taking control of their own destiny. On the other hand this really stood out:

“Maybe you’re right and people can’t live like this for very long. But the best evidence—with so much lost and so many people dead—is that they can’t live the old way at all. Individualism is dead because it didn’t work.”

Barnes doesn’t seem to have much faith in human nature, and he seems very fond of those cold equations that say the characters have to do the hard thing for everyone’s good. Of course, the writer makes up those equations for themselves… I think there’s a general tendency in SF to make those human equations very cold and the choices very extreme. Here it’s “We had to do horrible things to our children so humanity would survive!” How can you possibly blame them for that! What kind of a softie are you, anyway? I think this does tend to get valorized, and I don’t think it’s a good thing.

However, Orbital Resonance is a brilliant and very readable book. It’s from the point of view of a fourteen year old girl called Melpomene Murray, writing about the events of the year before, when she was thirteen. Barnes does the teenage girl point of view absolutely flawlessly without an instant of any kind of problem. Melpomene lives on the Flying Dutchman, cycling between Earth and Mars with off-Earth industry and cargo. She lives with her parents and her brother and she goes to a very interesting school. She takes her life for granted, but the book is in the form of a school project intended to explain life in space to people on Earth, and as the book goes on you discover that very human, very real Melpomene lives in a highly designed society, and one designed to produce consensus, co-operation, and good corporate employees—and she likes it that way. Orbital Resonance is as much a dystopia as anything you can find, but because Melpomene is our point of view character, and because she likes it, it’s easy to miss that and mistake it for a bouncy growing-up-in-space novel with a happy ending.

This is the same universe as Kaleidoscope Century. Earth has been ravaged by the mutAIDS plague, which killed George Bush Sr in the middle of his second term. Then there was a horrific war that was waged against biosystems, and now Earth is scrambling just to survive—these space habitats are an essential part of the survival of the human race. They had to make these kids be like that! They had no choice! And anyway, Melpomene doesn’t mind that she’s been manipulated, once she works it out, she’s having fun.

But those people born on the ship are really different from the ones that came from Earth. The worst thing they can call someone is “unco” which stands for “unco-operative”. But we see them having fun. They race around the outside of the asteroid. They have parties. They have best friends and boyfriends and eat pizza and express their emotions freely. But when a boy from Earth comes along and can’t move well in the gravity and thinks there are rules you follow only when other people are watching, everything goes the way you expect—for about three pages and them it completely turns that inside out. That’s why I love this book

Their school really does sound like fun. One of the things that really works is Melpomene’s matter-of-fact attitude to working singly, in pairs, in teams, in pyramids. Two of her schoolfriends are paired in Math and the overall result pushes one of them down one place but brings the other up five, so they’re delighted and hug each other. And their gym sounds wonderful—not only do they play games in complex gravity but the games have comprehensible rules and sound as if they’d be fun. One of the climaxes of the book comes during a game of Aerocrosse, where you have multiple teams and multiple mobile goals in microgravity, and doublecrossing is part of the game—but doublecrossing within the rules.

I generally don’t like future slang, but I’ll make an exception here. Barnes has a good ear, and doesn’t over-use it. He also knows that slang tends to produce words for “very” (“lim” here) and “good” and “bad” (“koapy” and “bokky”) and he limits it. I will admit that my son is still saying “pos-def” for strong affirmatives (positively-definitely) years after reading the book. It feels like language and it doesn’t jar. I also adore the names—these are kids born twenty years after the book was written, and they have names that mark them as a generation, long Greek names (Theophilus), weird nifty names (Randy is Randomly Distributed Schwartz) and the occasional recognisable name like Tom or Miriam for leaven. So many people get this wrong, and Barnes does it pitch perfectly.

Melpomene is writing the story of the events of one week, a year before. This is what I call “first person reflective”, meaning that the first person point of view character knows how things will come out and can comment on her actions from a later perspective. Barnes makes very good use of this to show us how it does come out before we know how it gets there. This is a very good book to read if you’re interested in how to write characters and how to make stories interesting. The pacing of revelation—the way it tells us what it tells us about what happens after that week in particular—couldn’t be better.

This may be Barnes’s best book. (Or that may be A Million Open Doors.) It’s a book almost everyone who likes SF will enjoy, and if it gives you a lot to think about as well, then that’s all to the good.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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