Feb 22 2010 2:34pm

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.

rick gregory
1. rickg
This and A Million Open Doors were the first two of Barnes' books I read and are still my favorites of his. The both hit that 'drop me into a world and take me for a journey' thing that I live in good SF. I don't have to work through 50 or 100 pages of setup - it just emerges from the book.

Oddly, the 'we had to do this' excuse didn't ring false to me so much as it was an extreme perspective brought on Mel's parent's generation by what they'd been through to survive. They'd seen horrible things and perhaps done some to survive - getting through experiences like that *will* change you and your perspective of the world and if I'd seen the world almost destroy itself while living the old way, I might well reject it too. It's been awhile since I've reread this, but if i remember this right, the book is in part a story of Mel's generation emerging from the controlling oversight of their parents with really fresh perspective - they were like human kids everywhere, but they weren't like Earth kids nor were they as the would have been without the direction and control of their parents.
JS Bangs
2. jaspax
Your Kaleidoscope link is broken.

Why did you refer to this as a dystopia? Based on the description, it sounds positively utopian, or at least a candidate for your positive futures collection: people living mostly good lives in a complex world. I'm interested in reading it myself, now.
James Davis Nicoll
3. James Davis Nicoll
If I recall correctly, this is set in the same universe as Kaleidoscope Century, The Sky So Big and Black and Candle so while the specific events in this story might be happy, the general setting is grim and filled with quite astonishingly large stacks of corpses. The MutAIDS plague isn't close to the worst thing that happens to humanity between 1990 and 2100.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Jaspax: Look at the paragraph that starts "Earth has been ravaged by the mutAIDS plague" and tell me it's a positive future. It's a good book and you'd probably like it, but it isn't positive at all.

It's a stealth dystopia.

RickG: The excuse doesn't ring false at all. By the cold equations we're given, they had no choice. But the writer rigs those equations to give the answers they want.
rick gregory
5. rickg

Absolutely he does... but isn't that simply setting premises? to turn this on its head, aren't positive future novels similarly rigged to give the outcome they want? I do agree with you that SF in general tends toward the bleak and dystopian - one reason I gave it up for a long while - but I guess I don't quite get how what Barnes does here is different from stage setting in most novels.
Christopher Hawley
6. chawley650
Jo, thank you for an interesting and thoughtful review.

One of the reasons Orbital Resonance remains a favorite of mine is the tension between its dystopian setting and the (apparently successful) ongoing efforts to improve it – surviving and keeping personal integrity while hanging on by the skin of one's teeth, a theme oft repeated in Heinlein's work.

BTW, if you've avoided reading Candle because of it being a sequel to Kaleidoscope Century, you might consider giving it a try. The setting and tone aren't fluffy bunnies and ice cream, to put it mildly, but the story takes some interesting and even hopeful turns in its development.

( You'll probably want to pass on reading A Princess of the Aerie, though — eww.  Trust me on this. )
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
RickG: Good question. I'm working on it.

CHawley650: I've read all of them. I think I have read all of Barnes, actually. And you are so right about PotA. There's nothing more annoying than a horrible sequel to a terrific book.
rick gregory
8. rickg
Perhaps this is what you were getting at, but in thinking about this a bit more it seems to me there's stage setting and the character reactions to it. In this one, there's the mutAIDS plague plus war and there's the reaction of Mel's parents and others of their generation.

Breaking that down, there are two parts to their reaction - the 'the old way didn't work' part of it and the 'so we need to setup a system where we control our kids and make sure they turn out right because it's Earth's last shot' part. I think the setting and the first part of their reaction is reasonable. The second part is defensible, but what I have an issue with is that the devastated Earth could support this kind of effort. However it's been a long while since I read this, so I might be forgetting something.
James Davis Nicoll
10. waqar
I have gone through this book and it is my favorite book and he is my favorite author too.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
RickG: I don't think it's events and reactions so much as that there's a difference between worldbuilding and stacking the deck. Maybe that difference only exists for me if I'm aware of it -- on other reads I skated right over that line I quoted above about individualism not working.
Fragano Ledgister
12. Fledgist
I really enjoyed Orbital Resonance, seeing it as a sort of riposte to the Heinlein juveniles that I read when I was a teen. I didn't read it as a dystopia, but I think you're right: it is a stealth dystopia.

If you come to Barnes's work, as I did, via The Man Who Pulled Down The Sky, you tend to see him as, if anything, the Anti-Heinlein. That is, as the writer who is the antiparticle to what Heinlein was. There are places in Orbital Resonance that make this very clear, as when we come across references to unions and labour struggles, or when we note that as the asteroid moves too far from Earth to get direct reports from the BBC and other news services, news is replaced by corporate propaganda.
JS Bangs
13. jaspax
bluejo@4: Thanks for your response. I see the paragraph you're pointing at, but I guess for me that doesn't imply "dystopia". For a story to qualify as dystopian for me, it's not enough that the world be in very bad shape. Rather, the badness of the world has to be directly oppressive to the characters, and they have to struggle against it in some way (and probably lose).

I can see how you might draw the lines differently, though. Does it make sense to say that this book doesn't belong to the genre of dystopian fiction, even though the setting is in some ways dystopian?
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Jaspax: Yes, the setting is dystopian without it being a cliched story of a struggle against it. Indeed, it's an unusual story of someone who is conditioned into their role in society and likes it.
Bruce Cohen
15. SpeakerToManagers
"A Million Open Doors" (the first of his books I read) and "Orbital Resonance" are also my favorite Barnes books; I can see, though, how trying to use them to get rid of the aftertaste of "Kaleidoscope Century" might be futile. Some slime just doesn't come off easily.

The impression I got from "Orbital Resonance" (I'm working from about 6 or 7 years of memory from my last reading, so I may be getting this wrong) was that the grim "we had to do this" justification of the builder's of the cycler society was balanced by the fact that much of the way it turned out in the next generation was unexpected, and that they no longer had any control over future changes.

One thing that bears remembering is that "Orbital Resonance" isn't just a rethinking of the general themes in the Heinlein YA books; it's also a careful pastiche and response to Alexei Panshin's "Rite of Passage", a story about a young girl living in a ship hollowed out of an asteroid after a catastrophe on Earth and coming of age in a society created ab initio by her parent's generation, in the grip of a terrible sense of purpose. Sometime when my spare time is a little more copious, I'd like to read the two books together and figure out just what Barnes is saying about Panshin's story.
James Davis Nicoll
16. Gray Woodland
It sounds like something that might well grab me, in the spirit of your Kaleidoscope suggestion elsepost. Thanks.

I've heard horrid rumour of Princess before, and add me to the tally of people who really hate the nastying-sequel. A deeper darker sequel with a wider wiser heart is meat and drink to me - I feel that both the success and failure of Tehanu lie in that quarter - but 'annoying' understates my reaction to a course set the other way: it is eating a fine meal served with grace and hospitality, and then finding the chef has gobbed a big green one in the custard.

By the way, the Million Open Doors link here has the same crack across it as the one to Kaleidoscope.
Fragano Ledgister
17. Fledgist
While I can understand the distaste for Kaleidoscope Century, I have to say that there are very few novels out there with explicitly biracial protagonists.
James Davis Nicoll
19. niaoren
Orbital Resonance is one of those science fiction books - like Kim Stanley Robinson's work - that I keep returning to year after year.

Barnes captures a certain innocence and wide-eyed optimism in this book- yet while never being a Pollyanna, but instead pulling the reader into Melpomene's world. I always read Orbital Resonance when I need some cheering up.

I don't think he ever topped himself after this book and A Million Open Doors - which also has a similar weathered innocence.

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