Orbital Resonance, by John Barnes

orbital-resonance-by-john-barnes coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 1992
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by David Hart

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The year is only 2025, but quite a lot has been happening: war, famine, epidemics. Luckily humanity has found time to get into space, capturing several asteroids and using them both as habitats and cargo ships. Earth is now supplied with food from space, and even so life down there sounds rather bleak.

The story takes place on one of these habitats, Flying Dutchman, which for undisclosed reasons travels continuously between the Earth and Mars. We are shown something of the structure of the ship, and rather more of the lifestyle of its inhabitants; but mostly the book deals with the society that has evolved on board, and with how that society came to evolve. We get to see this from the point of view of a 13 year old girl called Melpomene. She has been told to write a book so that children back on Earth can get a feel for what it is like to grow up and live in space, and she chooses to describe a few weeks of the previous year, when an uncivilized boy from Earth joined her peer-group.

Very few writers possess sufficient insight and ability to create believable characters of the opposite sex. So it was, shall I say, courageous of Barnes to tell this story in the first person from the viewpoint of a 13 year old girl, especially when the meat of the book comprises character interactions. Has he succeeded? I’m of the wrong sex to make a definitive judgement, but he seems to me to me to have made a decent stab at it. The interaction between the teenagers feels believable, and Barnes has created for them a slang that is convincingly irritating.

Perhaps less good is the way the role of villain keeps being passed from one character to another; and these 12 year olds seem to function two or three years older than their age. But then they are hothouse kids, from selected stock, in an experimental situation. Maybe this is what would happen.

What I haven’t yet mentioned is the readability of the book. Recently I seem to have endured more than my fair share of books that, while they might be worthy in some ways, I didn’t actually enjoy reading; and that has usually been due to the poor quality of the writing. Orbital Resonance, in contrast, is a pleasure to read because of the writing and the characterization, which between them more than compensate for a slightly lightweight plot. Well worth reading, and not only for teenagers.

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