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A King of Infinite Space by Allen Steele3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsOpening his eighth novel at the 1995 Lollapalooza festival was about as clear a bid for a youth readership as an SF writer could have made in the late ’90s, before YA became the intensely profitable publishing category it became after the turn of the century. Luckily for Allen Steele, he has always been a really good storyteller, otherwise the hipper-than-thou thing would have worn just as thin, just as quickly, as most of the music Carson Daly was hyping on MTV at that time. And who remembers any of that stuff, or even Carson?

While much of A King of Infinite Space dated rapidly, it’s still an enjoyable, actionful tale, ’90s-contemporary in its sensibilities while evoking a vintage science fiction vibe. Alec Tucker is just another aimless Gen-Xer with rich, aloof parents and no foreseeable future (poor baby) when he, his girlfriend and bestie are killed in a car crash on the way home from said festival. But imagine Alec’s surprise when he wakes up in a bed in a mysterious white room, surrounded by dozens of other people like himself, where disembodied voices in his head help him re-learn and recover his most basic bodily functions. 

Is this Heaven? Not likely, as Alec realizes that he and his equally bewildered companions are prisoners in a vast palace owned by an enigmatic and unseen master known as Mr. Chicago. As the memory of his former life slowly returns, Alec eventually meets this strange individual, who informs him of the circumstances behind his own death and rebirth. Evidently, Alec was cryogenically frozen upon his death, an arrangement made by his family. Just over a century later, with nanotechnology available to correct any damage done to the brain by the freezing process, he has been revived, but not into the idyllic future that cryogenics fans had hoped for. He and his companions are veritable slave labor on Mr. Chicago’s personal asteroid.

Alec learns that Mr. Chicago (who has had computer chips and nano devices placed all throughout the bodies of his revived “deadheads,” so that he can control and even kill them with a simple verbal command) is the ringleader in a dreaded piracy ring scattered throughout the belt. Naturally, Alec decides he simply has to escape, especially after finding out that his beloved girlfriend did not die in the crash, but was nonetheless frozen upon her eventual death. Now her remains are stored on Clarke County near Earth. What follows is a tension-packed chase back to Clarke County and then the moon, as Alec finds himself embroiled in the labyrinthine conflicts between the numerous political factions that litter the solar system, as well as between normal humans and the genetically altered “superiors.”

Unlike the more straightforward, if still admirably gritty, approach to hard SF taken by Steele in earlier adult SF novels like Orbital Decay and Clarke County, Space (of which this book is part of the same future history), A King of Infinite Space goes more the classic space opera route. All the ingredients are there: action, adventure, romance, a callow hero, a nefarious supervillian. It’s Star Wars set to an alternative soundtrack. True, the nonstop allusions to contemporary rock of the ’90s (Steele acknowledges no fewer than 22 bands and solo artists) quickly dated many scenes in this novel, and honestly, such references always were irrelevant to readers not into the likes of R.E.M. and Pearl Jam in the first place. And from a storytelling standpoint, there are some jarring shifts in tone at the beginning, particularly in the transition from Gen-X real-world setting to a possibly metaphysical afterlife scenario, then onto a glistening, decadent high-tech future. But I felt some of this was supposed to confuse, to help us share in Alec’s disorientation as he attempts to adjust to his displacement in time.

Some readers might be driven berserk by just how immature Alec often is. Like any petulant, immature teen, he has likability issues. But this is a coming of age tale, and Alec’s growing-up character arc was, to me at least, handled in a plausible way.

What imperfections A King of Infinite Space has ultimately count for little. Because for entertainment value, the book has so many moments that are pure rock and roll. King may be a product of a specific time, but it can still be genuinely fun reading if you catch it in the right frame of mind. It’s engaging futuristic YA from its beginning to its surprising and satisfying end. It moves at such a breathless pace that at one point I did in fact microwave myself a bag of popcorn to enjoy while flipping its pages. (Okay, I made that up. But it’s the kind of thing I might have done.) If you’re already an Allen Steele fan, you’ll want to get swept up in this adventure. And if you’re coming to his work for the first time, you may yet agree, A King of Infinite Space rawks.