By opening his eighth novel at the 1995 Lollapalooza festival — complete with onstage appearances by the likes of Hole and Beck — Allen Steele has solidified his standing as, if nothing else, the coolest dude writing hard SF today. Lucky for him he's also a damn good storyteller, otherwise the hipper-than-thou thing would wear just as thin just as quickly as most of the music Carson Daly is hyping on MTV right this minute. (Or whomever's hyping it now.)
Alec Tucker is just another aimless Gen-X'er with rich, aloof parents and no foreseeable future (poor baby) when he, his girlfriend and best bud are killed in a car crash on the way home from said concert. 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 100 years later, with nanotechnology available to correct any of the 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, learning that Mr. Chicago (who has had computer chips and nano devices placed all throughout the bodies of his revived "deadheads," so that he can even kill them with a simple verbal command) is the ringleader in a dreaded piracy ring scattered throughout the belt, decides he simply has to escape — especially after learning that his beloved girlfriend, who did not die in the crash, was nonetheless frozen upon her eventual death and 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, as well as between normal humans and the genetically altered "superiors," that litter the solar system.
Unlike the more straightforward, if still admirably edgy, approach to hard SF taken in Steele's earlier novels such as 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 (Steele acknowledges no fewer than 22 bands and solo artists) are going to date parts of this novel pretty quick, not to mention the fact that they're essentially irrelevant to people not into the likes of R.E.M. and Pearl Jam in the first place. Also, from a storytelling standpoint, there are some jarring shifts in tone at the book's beginning, particularly in the transition from contemporary Gen-X setting, to a possible metaphysical afterlife scenario, to glistening high-tech SF adventure. But these, I felt, were supposed to confuse, as we're learning about Alec's fate at the same time he is.
Some readers might be driven berserk by just how immature Alec is throughout much of the story. 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 satsifying and plausible way.
What imperfections A King of Infinite Space has ultimately count for little. Because for sheer entertainment value, this book is pure rock and roll. King is genuinely fun reading, consistently engaging from beginning to 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. If you're already an Allen Steele fan, you'll want to get swept up in this adventure right away, and even if you're not, you may yet agree, A King of Infinite Space jams.