The Duke of Uranium
by John Barnes
Tor, 2002, 290 pp, $6.99.
If I were inclined to be picky, I’d note that the cover art on this book bears no resemblance whatsoever to the story in it except that they’re both SF mostly occurring in space. That’s if I were being picky.
Since I’m not at all picky, I’ll say instead that this was a wonderful piece of light SF adventure which I thoroughly enjoyed.
John Barnes seems to do some serious books which are nearly always dark and then he’ll turn out delightful pieces like this and One for the Morning Glory and the Caesar’s Bicycle trilogy. (I’ll admit that on the whole I enjoy the lighter books more. I do not find darkness and gloom to be an attractive setting, nor do I find pessimism an attractive philosophy.)
The Duke of Uranium is set in a far-future Solar System and follows a young man, Jak, who is just graduating the equivalent of high school. He lives in the Hive, however, not on Earth. The Hive is a space habitat the size of the Moon where more than a billion people live and which is located in one of Earth’s L5 points. (In spite of a nasty war in the past, Humanity is well-established in space.)
Jak is athletic, but not very interested in school and when he fails the college exams, he figures on joining the military. This changes when his girlfriend is kidnapped from a dance and he discovers that his uncle (with whom he lives) is more than he seems and Jak gets involved in considerably more excitement than he expected. Jak’s uncle has succeeded in interesting Jak in The Disciplines, some sort of martial-arts thingie, which he will need.
Jak’s world is a fascinating one and Barnes has done an excellent job of realizing it. For example, Jak and his friends speak in a slang which is carefully calibrated to sound a bit alien to us without being so alien as to get in the way of the story. (And I was delighted with the notion that the Hive was large enough for several hundred independent nations to exist on it!)
Other wonders abound: Pluto is settled by the remnant of an alien race which tried to invade the Solar System, but were beaten by humans sending the sun into nova leaving the invasion force refugees which ultimately settled Pluto. The Earth is pocked with tens of thousand of craters from their initial bombardment. There are dozens – maybe hundreds – of illicit social engineering organization (would-be Second Foundations) in the solar system, all working to bring about their future and all busy thwarting each other.
The whole thing isn’t terribly consistent – if travel between Earth and the Hive is as slow as it is in the book, then why was the Hive built there and how did they get the vast quantities of material there? Details, details. This isn’t meant to be deeply analyzed.
This may not be great SF, but it’s great fun! (And it appears that there will be sequels.)