Earth Made of Glass, John Barnes

Tor, 1998, 416 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55161-3

Long-time John Barnes readers already know that he’s fascinated by the fate of societies. His first few novels were all hard-SF extrapolations of societies radically different from our own. A Million Open Doors was especially interesting, a tale of a carefree, artistic young man abruptly transferred into a repressive pragmatic theocracy. It many ways, it’s Barnes most enjoyable novel, with its carefully paced action, clean writing and upbeat finale.

Earth Made of Glass is an indirect sequel to A Million Open Doors. It takes place twelve years later and stars the two protagonists of the previous volume, but doesn’t really depend on the first book for full comprehension. Girault and Margaret have become special agents for the central government of the Thousand Cultures human civilization. Their job is to ensure that the integration of new cultures in the intersystem teleporter network is done without incident.

Briand is their biggest challenge yet: An inhospitable planet at the exception of a few secluded areas, it is host to two cultures who absolutely can’t tolerate each other. Girault and Margaret must not only find a way to eradicate this common hate and bring Briand in the Thousand Cultures, but also work on the problems that have begun to plague their marriage… guess what will be the most difficult task?

On the bright side, Earth Made of Glass vividly illustrates Barnes’ biggest strengths; clear writing, sustained plotting, a wealth of fun details and solid characters. Even better is his fascination with social dynamics; SF seems to be Barnes’ device to explore human politics and the result is sufficiently different from most SF to ensure interest. The ideas are there and they’re worth listening to.

On the other hand, this novel is less successful than its prequel for several reasons. While the societies explored here are complex and detailed, the wealth of minutiae often threatens to overwhelm the narration. Then there’s the fact that most Western readers won’t care a whit about either the Tamil or Maya societies—maybe that’s the intention, but it certainly doesn’t pack as much punch as a good ol’ Medievalist civilisation. (what about a non-literary society, too?)

That that’s nothing compared to how the characters behave. For someone as finely trained in the arts of artistic subtlety, Girault lets far too many clues pass him by. (Even distracted readers will pick up on elements of the conclusion long before the narrator) For someone as pragmatic and level-headed as Margaret, her behavioral motives appear awfully thin. As a matter of fact, everyone‘s motives don’t quite ring true, from Margaret to Girault, Ix and Auvaiyar… a lot as if Barnes just moved pieces across a board without covering up his efforts. It’s not always fun to see likable character acting stupidly; by the end of the book, you’ll be ready to want to slap around most of the characters for being such idiots.

Then there’s the bittersweet finale, when Barnes reverts to his early pessimism. The point might be valid, but it doesn’t help that it’s such a downer; what about the idea of structural balance?

Fortunately (or not), this volume is rife with setups for (at least) a third volume chronicling Girault’s adventures. While Earth Made of Glass proves to be a often-frustrating mixed-bag of good ideas and bad choices, it remains sufficiently interesting to please old fans and whip up anticipation for further books. This reviewer can’t wait to see Girault teach the finer points of courtisanship to representatives of alien civilisations…

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