Tor, 1992, 315 pages, C$25.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85210-X
Much like the Music Industry’s been feverishly looking for bands “like the Beatles”, SF has been looking for “Heinlein’s Successor” ever since the Grandmaster declined/became boring/died in 1988. Various successor have been appointed (including most notably Spider Robinson; not a bad choice) but none has risen to take the crown.
The latest heir to the throne is John Barnes, a science-fiction writer whose books have been steadily growing in maturity and intensity. From an inauspicious beginning (The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, 1988) Barnes has produced a few fine novels (most notably Orbital Resonance and A Million Open Doors) before hitting the big-time in 1994 with his excellent disaster epic Mother of Storms, followed in 1995 by the ultraviolent Kaleidoscope Century (His latest projects are the fantasy One for the Morning Glory and a series of men’s adventure books self-admittedly written for a quick buck.)
Why the comparisons with Heinlein? Ask the four authors whose blurb on the back cover of A Million Open Doors compare Barnes to the Big Guy. Ask David Pringle, whose Ultimate Encyclopedia of SF says “If Robert Heinlein had been raised amid suburbs and malls and the socio-political chaos of the past three decades, he might have grown up to be John Barnes.”
Yet, the comparison is unfair: Barnes’ forte is sociological extrapolation and -lately,- fiction that isn’t afraid to pull its punches, may it be in violent or sexual content. Quite a few Usenet readers have expressed a few doubts about the author himself after reading the ultra-violent-porn subplot in Mother of Storms. Others are reputedly abandonning Barnes after the sometimes graphic Kaleidoscope Century.
Well, never mind that. With A Million Open Doors, we take a trip back to a kinder, gentler John Barnes. This is a tale of two planets: harsh Caledony, where a religious government casts a humorless, rigid shadow over their inhabitants and Nou Occitan, a planet “where duels are fought with equal passion over insults and artistic views alike.” The narrator of the tale is Girault, a “young” man living the extravagant life of the traditional Nou Occitans. He spends his days drinking with his friends, fighting duels, insulting strangers and writing poetry for his “girlfriend.” When said girlfriend “betrays him in the worst way possible”, Girault finds himself running away from her, off on Caledony.
Yep, this is a novel of Culture Shock: Imagine a 16th-century French aristocrat trying to convert modern-day Iran to his way of life and you’ll have a good idea of this novel’s thrust. But as Girault changes Caledonia, Caledonia changes him too… Like so many good Heinlein novels, this is also a very good coming-of-age story.
I was surprised and delighted by A Million Open Doors. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s very amusing. This novel has that extra… oh… “joie-de-vivre” that leaves you smiling even days after reading this book. Better yet, this is an intelligent bright novel. Barnes’ insight in what make societies tick is impressive. At the same time, the story stays very personal: A strong cast of characters complement narrator Girault’s passage in adulthood, ten years belated. This isn’t as much a “Growing Up” novel as a “Will you grow up, already!” story.
This is a much more even novel than the latter Mother of Storms. It’s more focused and less dark. Less brilliant, perhaps (Mother of Storms is an incredibly smart novel, even for SF) but with a larger potential audience. (This isn’t to say A Million Open Doors is fluffy from start to finish: There’s a few darker passages, especially their solution to death…)
The cover art, as usual from artist John Harris (of Ender’s Game cover fame) is hopelessly out of touch from what’s in the novel.
Had I mentioned that the prose style is compulsively readable? Thought so.
It’s difficult to say which kind of novel I prefer from Barnes: The light, uplifting work like A Million Open Doors, the massive volume like Mother of Storms or the dark distopia of Kaleidoscope Century… In the end, the versatility of John Barnes might be his greatest talent yet.
I’ll keep reading.
[January 1997 addenda: Just to prove that I have a talent for being wrong, I claimed in a Usenet message that A Million Open Doors should please everyone. (Referring to the recent ultraviolent content in Mother of Storms and Kaleidoscope Century). A day or two passed, with a reply to my message saying that there was quite a bit of disgusting S&M sex, not-quite-jolly swordplay and rape in the book… which is absolutely correct.
To defend myself, I’ll point out that the S&M and swordplay bits are in the first hundred pages, the rape is in background and the whole impression of the book is far less violent than the others. Growing up, for Girault and his friends, implies leaving behind the S&M and the swordplay. A curious thing, selective memory is…
Still, I can be an idiot to most people, most of the time, see? 🙂 ]