John Barnes,
The Duke of Uranium
(Warner, 2002)

Study the jacket blurb for John Barnes' The Duke of Uranium. Then ignore it, and ignore it hard. This is not a book about grand politics, dark secrets or world-shattering revelations.

It is a heck of a lot of fun. In the 36th century, sunships fly from solar energy harvested in vast expensive sails; entire countries live in space colonies with nothing but man-made sunlight and resources; feudal dictatorships wrestle for power with capitalist democracies. Everyone takes these wonders with exactly the attitude people have always felt toward their own society: boredom.

And teenagers like Jak Jinnaka have responded in the prescribed fashion, developing a counterculture of adult-disapproved music, impenetrable slang and panic over school. Jak's placid routine is interrupted by the revelation that his girlfriend is a princess, and a kidnapped princess at that, and that he, for some reason, is the only one who can save her.

This is the closest the book comes to politics. Jak's elders try to explain the complicated situation to him, and he promptly tunes out. Barnes invites the readers to do the same; this is grand space adventure, not some tense political thriller! Jak's every action confirms that we're meant to pay attention to the explosions, pretty girls and dramatic battles, not the underpinnings of a world Byrne has nevertheless clearly planned out well. If a reader should ever drift from the adventure and try to focus on more serious matters, someone, usually the hero, is sure to mention old-school pulp novels, bringing the atmosphere back to the proper plane.

The Duke of Uranium isn't deep or thought-provoking, and fans of hard SF will no doubt find a million things wrong with the casual interplanetary jaunts. But the exuberance of both the adventure and the writing itself makes a pleasant diversion for those tired of deep questions over humanity's destiny. If you miss the days of wild adventures in far-flung futures, grab a ticket for a sunship in the 36th century and ride along with The Duke Of Uranium.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 23 August 2003

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