Finity, John Barnes

Tor, 1999, 303 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86118-4

I’ve read the majority of John Barnes’ work, but a few books got forgotten along the way –such as Finity. It’s not much of an oversight: Finity is a minor novel, a trifle compared to some of Barnes’ other efforts. It’s not a success, and a look at Amazon confirms that the book received mixed reviews (29 reviews, and not one of them a five-star!)… but it fails to cohere in interesting ways.

If nothing else, it does have the decency to start promisingly: The first hundred pages or so take place in an alternate reality where Nazis have taken over the world, yet feature the quasi-comical adventures of one Lyle Peripart, a quiet academic whose days are calm enough to allow for pleasant exchanges with the panoply of AIs managing things around him. But for Lyle, a successful job interview becomes the prelude to an increasingly baffling series of events that he can’t understand –almost as if reality was being altered around him.

By the time his wife kills a Nazi spy and then disavows all knowledge of her actions, the readers are getting clued onto the fact that the many realities of Lyle Peripart are merging, splitting, shifting –and something has to be done! Good thing, then, that he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a group assembled especially for this occasion.

Alas, this middle chunk of the book presents its own unique challenges. As Lyle and friends shift between realities, the reader has little solid footing. Everything known is wrong, which includes all of the lovely amusing bits in the book’s first third. Our characters are stuck in a storm of parallel realities, and the impression left by this extended sequence is unique: It’s like reading in a fog, where the words on the page can be trusted, but the entire conceptual framework carried around by the reader has to be purged again and again. It’s not a pleasant moment, but I’m struggling in vain to remember a similar reading experience elsewhere in fiction.

When things settle down, they don’t go back to the world of the first third. In fact, our protagonist has to contend with altered version of his friends and significant others –a difference that leads to a pretty ugly scene of non-consensual sex between a bound and bewildered narrator and a girlfriend whose kinks don’t include safe-words. (Never underestimate Barnes’ ability to insert forcible anal penetration in an otherwise light-hearted adventure. But his fans already knew that.)

Alas, the novel continues unraveling from that point forward, to such an extent that it’s legitimate to wonder if Barnes is doing it on purpose to annoy genre readers. Even after all the characters are reunited and bound in a single stable reality, their grand quest peters out as characters are killed one by one, until the remaining ones decide to retreat into a passive lifestyle. This, too, may be a radically innovative concept for genre fiction: In how many novels do you recall the protagonists giving up the adventure in order to stay away from it all?

The fact that all of those things are interesting doesn’t in any way make them more satisfying. Finity messes with the genre fiction formula to its own perils: There’s a reason why formula works the way it works, and any attempt to defy convention also risks a backlash worse than just “a dull book”. Despite trappings of conventional adventure, Finity certainly engages the reader in ways that defy conventional reading protocols… but it’s the kind of experience that leaves readers without satisfaction. I certainly wouldn’t be so kind to the novel if I wasn’t already well predisposed to Barnes’ work, and if I didn’t suspect that his fiction often means to enrage a certain kind of readers. At the very least, the middle portion of Finity is a really fascinating reading experience; I wonder if the whole “reading in a fog” feeling couldn’t be exploited in other contexts.

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