Candle, John Barnes

Tor, 2000, 248 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58968-8

There are certain archetypal stories in SF, and one of them is the one about the hero of a corrupt society who, after being asked to destroy the rebels undermining the evil empire, discovers that the rebels are right and then changes allegiances to fight against his former masters. Revolution happens and the credits roll. It’s a good story, a familiar story and, by now, pretty much a cliché (unless you’re writing a screenplay, in which case a good EQUILIBRIUM is worth about ten adaptations of classics like The Time Machine)

As it turns out, it’s also the story at the core of John Barnes’ Candle. At a time in the mid-nineties, Barnes seemed poised to take over the SF world and become one of its foremost writers; big books like A Million Open Doors (1992) and Mother of Storms (1994) demonstrated a writer with a good grasp of SF tools, an interest for complex socio-political issues, an accessible writing style and a willingness to shock readers once in a while. Then, something happened. I’m not sure what. The unpleasantness of some of his fiction may have rubbed off a few readers, along with the streak of sadism that ran throughout 1995’s Kaleidoscope Century. Maybe it was Barnes’ excursion in the “men’s adventure” category with the “Timeline Wars” trilogy. Maybe it was Barnes’ personal life, which reportedly took a turn for the worse at that time and may have contributed to the grim conclusion of 1998’s Earth Made of Glass.

Whatever it was, Barnes never again regained the reputation he once enjoyed. The jury certainly isn’t out, and I’m woefully behind the times when it comes to his 2000-2005 production, but sarcastic fare like Gaudeamus could either be a work of genius or a genuine catastrophe. We’ll see when we get there: In the meantime we’re here to discuss Candle, its thin plot and how it demonstrate my thesis of an author that is capable of much more.

Loosely set in the same “Meme Wars” (or “The Century Next Door”) universe, Candle presents the story of one Currie Curran, expert rebel hunter living the good quiet life… until the central intelligence controlling Earth requests his services one last time: There’s a last rebel to capture, one last individualist not plugged into the network. The rebel is the last and the best of them, but given how Currie himself was one of the best, well…

It doesn’t take long for the expected beats to fall into place. The track. The chase. The capture. The long monologue in which the rebel isn’t so bad after all. The extended flashback in which the whole future is explained. A bit more action. The counter-twist. The final action sequence. The conclusion.

Some of the book approaches parody, what with those two manly heroes talkin’ to each other’s ears like the studly cowboy type they are, complete with the colourful vocabulary and the false rural accents. Most of the book is deathly dull, as it merely goes through the motions of a well-worn narrative. The conclusion isn’t particularly surprising, especially if you’re there reading and shaking your head in dread that “it can’t be that simple”.

But there are flashes of interest. The description of the Meme Wars (in which ideas literally take over humans and fight themselves) may be filled with wavy hand-wringing and gratuitous violence, but it’s a shining novella-length piece of world-building in an otherwise conventional novel. It’s by far the most interesting passage of the book, once again showing that while Barnes may be dormant, there’s still plenty of stuff for him to kick around. There is some material here and there about the tension between individuality and community, but after fifteen years of hard-core SF reading, I’m asking for a “get out of philosophical discussion for free” card when it comes to those issues: been there, thought about it, nothing new under the sun.

All in all, Candle may satisfy some lenient readers and entertain even the toughest critics, but it’s not much more than yet another average SF novel. The problem is that we know that Barnes is capable of a lot more. And we’re waiting to see him rise once again.

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