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A King of Infinite Space
Allen Steele
HarperPrism, 424 pages


Art: Chris Moore
A King of Infinite Space
Allen Steele
Allen M. Steele's first published SF was his story "Live from the Mars Hotel," published in Asimov's Science Fiction in 1988. Since then his novels and collections have included Orbital Decay, Clarke County, Space, Lunar Descent, Labyrinth of Night, Rude Astronauts, The Jericho Iteration, The Tranquillity Alternative and All-American Alien Boy. Steele, a resident of St. Louis, MO, received both the 1996 Hugo Award and the 1996 Science Fiction Weekly Reader Appreciation Award for his novella "The Death of Captain Future," which appeared in Asimov's in June 1995.

Allen Steele Website
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SF Site Review: A King of Infinite Space
SF Site Interview: Allen Steele (part 1)
SF Site Interview: Allen Steele (part 2)

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Allen Steele has built a reputation in the past decade or so as one of the better new hard SF writers. The bulk of his work has been set in a common future history, collectively called "Near Space," emphasizing the colonization of the solar system out to the asteroids, mainly, over the next century or so. The gritty details of much of his work, the settings, and also the casual, slangy, language Steele uses to tell his stories, have reminded many readers of Robert Heinlein. Steele has won a Hugo Award for his novella "The Death of Captain Future," part of this future history.

I've read a good deal of Steele's short fiction, but only one other novel. So I came to A King of Infinite Space somewhat unfamiliar with the "Near Space" milieu. And he has mentioned that this may be the last novel he sets in that universe. Indeed, its ending is an appropriate capstone to Steele's set of tales of Solar System colonization.

The novel begins with Alec Tucker, the spoiled rich kid narrator, attending a concert, with his girlfriend and his best buddy, in St. Louis in 1995. (Steele lived in St. Louis for many years, and I also live there. It was fun for me to recognize some of his settings, and also to map some of his characters -- roughly -- to real people.) On the way home, they have a wreck. The next chapter opens with the narrator awakening 100 years in the future. We soon realize that his father had paid for him to have his head frozen for future revival. He's been revived, and after a period of adjustment, he and a number of fellow "deadheads" are put to work as janitors. This echoes a fairly familiar recent SF trope (invented by Larry Niven, perhaps?): that of the future having no use for revived "corpsicles" (Niven's term) except as slaves.

Alec begins to learn some disturbing facts about his situation. All the deadheads are working for the mysterious Pasquale Chicago, who seems to be the leader of a large organized crime organization based in the asteroid belt. His power over the deadheads is absolute, and Alec witnesses several killings, sometimes for good reasons (attempted rape, for example), but also for capricious ones. Alec's buddy, who died in the same wreck Alec did, turns out to be another deadhead. And Alec soon finds out that his girlfriend was also cryogenically preserved, but she seems to have been left in another place, possibly the habitat Clarke County, at one of Earth's Lagrange points.

Alec's resentment over his enslavement, his fear of Mister Chicago, and his desire to try to find his girlfriend all lead to a desire to escape. The final straw is his friend's promotion to "foreman," and the airs and such that his friend takes on. At this point the action starts to heat up, and Alec succeeds in making a desperate run for it. A scary flight through empty space and a rendezvous with the heroes of "The Death of Captain Future" result in Alec finding his way to Earth orbit. Here Steele displays the downside of the glorious space-based future, and Alec ends up having to pass as mentally-retarded, and to take a job cleaning windows (big windows).

The novel's climax resolves our questions, about the fate of Alec's girlfriend, and the sinister plans of Mister Chicago, and Alec's ultimate destiny. The ending is rousing enough, in a fairly traditional SF sense. However, I had a major problem with the ending, which largely ruined the book for me. In essence, I think the ending is a cheat, in that it renders the main action of the story basically insignificant. In addition, the plot, which up to that time was reasonably believable, given the usual string of brushes with danger which always work out, becomes utterly implausible. It is as if Steele has constructed a tower of toy blocks, which totteringly support each other, and which we can just believe will stay erect. Then he asks us to believe that a whacking great big marble statue can be balanced on top of it (if I may be permitted a flight of metaphorical fancy).

A King of Infinite Space is at the first level an acceptable, breezy, read. But in the final analysis three elements disappointed me. The first, and most important, was the implausible nature of the final structure of the plot. The second was that the characters are not terribly likable. The narrator is portrayed, quite realistically, as a spoiled brat for most of the novel. This makes sense, and is well enough depicted, but it does make it harder to sympathize with him. The rest of the characters are seen at a greater distance, and they are all either quite minor, or jerks of one variety or another as well. Finally, Steele has chosen to tell the story in a combination of present and past tense. This is a device that you might be able to pull off, if there was a good enough reason. But Steele goes so far as to switch tenses in the same sentence, and that's too much for me. And at any rate I couldn't detect a consistent reason for the tense switches.

I've enjoyed much of Allen Steele's shorter work. I must say that both novels I've read have been disappointments, though. He does have an impressive imagination, and a way with an adventure plot that makes his stuff fun to read. I won't write him off, by any means, but I can't give A King of Infinite Space any more than a lukewarm "passes the time" sort of recommendation.

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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