Harper Prism, 1997, 312 pages
"This is the story of the last day of my life, and everything that happened after that."
Back in print after a decade, A King of Infinite Space is the final volume of Allen Steele's award-winning Near-Space series, and a cult-favorite among readers. Ranging from a Lollapalooza concert of 1995 to the asteroid belt of 2099, it's the tale of a young man who dies, becomes reborn, and crosses the solar system in search of his lost love... and grows to be a better man, despite himself.
A King of Infinite Space is the last book in Allen Steele's Near-Space series. It's a stand-alone novel that does not require reading any of the previous stories, though Working for Mister Chicago and The Death of Captain Future introduce several characters who reappear here.
William Alec Tucker III ("Alec" to his friends) is a rich douchebag. He's the son of a vapid, gold-digging mother and a rich father, neither of whom actually want to spend much time with him, so he grows up like most such young men: a spoiled, self-centered asshole with no principles or ambitions. In 1995, he and his girlfriend, Erin, are riding home from a concert in a car driven by Alec's best friend, Shemp. Shemp is flying high on three hits of acid when they meet a truck.
About a hundred years later, Alec wakes up in a white room, with no memory of who he is. In fact, at first he can't even remember how to eat or use the toilet.
Gradually, his memories come back, and he discovers that his father had signed him up for one of those cryogenic suspension schemes back in the 1990s. When he died, his head was surgically removed, frozen, and kept in storage for some future date when the technology would exist to revive him. To the surprise of those who are revived, that date actually comes.
Unfortunately, Alec soon finds that in the intervening century, during which mankind has expanded throughout the solar system, and the politics and economics of 20th century Earth have faded into history, a sinister, wealthy and powerful individual known as "Mister Chicago" acquired the "deadheads" once cared for by the Immortality Partnership, and for reasons of his own, had them brought to his enormous estate to be revived. And upon revival, he puts them all to work — cleaning floors, scrubbing toilets, dusting shelves, changing sheets. These wealthy, elite optimists of the 20th century, hoping to be brought back to life to experience the wonders of the future, are turned into menial house slaves.
It turns out that Alec's friend Shemp also died in that accident and was revived with him. As Alec begins trying to scope out his new surroundings, the world in which he finds himself, and the goals of their mysterious "benefactor," he discovers that he and Shemp have changed, and not for the better. Alec wants to find out what happened to Erin, and this, and the betrayal of his friend and the increasingly sinister behavior of Mister Chicago, convinces him to plot an escape.
The rest of the book is a Heinleinesque space adventure: Alec flees to the Clarke County space station, and then a secret research facility on the Moon, all while trying to evade Mister Chicago's minions and the Pax Astra's intelligence service.
As a space adventure, this book was great. I really enjoyed Steele's other Near-Space stories, and this novel-length coda to those stories presents a daring, heroic protagonist who survives with a combination of cleverness, courage, and stupid blind luck.
The daring, heroic, protagonist is, however, still a douchebag. Alec grows up a bit over the course of the novel, gradually realizing what a shitty little spoiled brat he was and how badly he treated everyone from the hired help to his own friends, but right up until the very end he's still kind of a dick. It's hard to outgrow an upbringing like his.
Since I thought this was the point of the novel — the former trust fund kiddie has to man up and figure out how to survive in a universe that no longer cares about his daddy's money — I found it entertaining, especially when Alec got his ass kicked several times, and at first we feel sorry for him, and then realize later that he totally deserved it.
The twists at the end, however, threw me a bit, as several characters who've been built up as sadistic villains do a heel-face turn, and I wasn't entirely satisfied by the way everything wraps up in the last few chapters (even if I did guess early on what Mister Chicago was really up to). Also, A King of Infinite Space was written in 1997, so the pop-culture references Alec keeps referring to from his own time are already a bit dated. (Why do science fiction authors writing about people in the future who love nostalgic/retro culture never invent at least a few names who would presumably have been famous in the time period between when they are writing and when the story takes place?)
That wasn't enough to diminish my enjoyment of the book, though, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes Heinleinesque space adventures.
Verdict: Allen Steele is a reliable hard SF fix for those who like modern science fiction in the spirit of Heinlein. A King of Infinite Space stands alone well, but is even better following the rest of his Near-Space stories. 9/10.
Also by Allen Steele: My reviews of Coyote, Apollo's Outcasts, and Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete "Near Space" Stories, Expanded Edition.
My complete list of book reviews.