Gaudeamus, John Barnes

Tor, 2004, 320 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30329-9 jul30

I rarely get close enough to authors for them to give me reading tips about their own novels, but a chance encounter with John Barnes at 2006’s L.A.Con IV had him telling me that I would either love or hate Gaudeamus.

Never mind that it took me three years to follow up on his suggestion: I can definitely see what he meant by polarized reactions.  Gaudeamus is anything but a conventional genre SF novel: It’s meta-fiction, tall tale, genre parody and RudyRuckeresque weirdness all at once.  It makes little and complete sense, takes risks that would doom less outrageous SF novels and manages –almost despite all ongoing expectations– to fulfill its own ambitions.

A conventional plot summary would probably start by an acknowledgement that the novel’s narrator is one “John Barnes” and that most of the novel is made out of three long conversations with a friend of his.  The friend in question, Travis Bismark, is an industrial spy whose latest case gets weirder by the minute, and it’s Travis’ story that Barnes tells, at a remove.  Technically, Gaudeamus doesn’t have to be a Science Fiction novel: you can dismiss it by saying that it’s all taking place in Travis’s head and the rest is just a tall, tall tale.  How tall?  Tall enough that coincidences and long-lost friends all fit perfectly… and that’s not even considering the science-fiction elements.

Because whenever it comes to SF elements, Barnes uses the freewheeling spirit of his story to pull out all the stops.  Gaudeamus (“Let us rejoice” in Latin, and not a regionally-accented bastardization of “Goddamn mouse” as I was hoping for) ends up being a code word for all sorts of neat classic SF devices all thrown willy-nilly in the plot.  Not to spoil anything, but: Telepathy, teleportation, time-travel or aliens?  All Gaudeamus!  (Also; a web comic)

To fit all of this, plus mainstream observations on the daily life of one SF writer named “John Barnes” (the first few pages are all about how to begin a story), Gaudeamus moves at a pretty fast pace, especially when Travis’ initial investigation quickly evolves out of anything we can feel comfortable with.  My most serious complaint about the novel, in fact, is that a fascinating techno-thriller could have been written out of Travis doing industrial espionage and stumbling into a high-tech mystery.  Still, that Gaudeamus then pick up at light-speed toward ever-stranger vistas isn’t really a problem, so file this under “Ideas another writer may want to use some day.”

In fact, there’s a refreshing looseness in the story that Barnes allows himself with the tall tale conceit.  In its attempt to go against the grain of genre SF, Gaudeamus manages to become a rather charming novel in which the usual tropes are displayed differently, and with constant winks to the seasoned readers.  I’m not sure that I would like to see a steady stream of such self-referential novels, but once in a while isn’t a bad thing.  I’m also pleased and impressed at the way the entire story comes together at the end, even when it seems, at times, that the whole thing will crumble on its own rich mixture of elements.  (For all remaining complains for plot holes, see “Tall tales, telling of”)

Gaudeamus also fits pretty well in Barnes’ bibliography as a genre SF writer: Elements of the conclusion seem to echo a little bit of Barnes’ Jak Jinnaka series, while we get a sly wink about his two collaborations with Buzz Aldrin.  That it laughs, in-text, at overly picky SF readers is an extra bonus.  In fact, I regret that the narrator never makes to the SF convention he spends a few moments complaining about: it would have been fun to see such an event from the point of view of narrator-Barnes.

In short, Gaudeamus is weird, unique, intentionally off-putting and yet completely successful.  It’s a successful gamble, and the kind of novel that ought to appeal to SF readers who don’t mind a bit of genre-bending.  I’d go as far as saying that it’s one of Barnes’ strongest efforts in ways that directly relate to the rest of his bibliography to date.  In fact, looking at his list of publications to bolster this argument, I’m struck at how Barnes fits the model of a mid-list genre SF author while, at the same time, writing a long and relatively successful series of books that struck back at genre conventions.  But we’re running out of space, and so this observation will have to be postponed to another review…  In the meantime, frankly, I’ll read anything the man will write.

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