The Merchants of Souls, John Barnes

Tor, 2001, 398 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58969-6

John Barnes’ work may have polarized readers, but his career has been fascinating to follow. Now solidly ranked in the Science Fiction mid-list after a promising debut in the late eighties, Barnes has written everything from hard-SF blockbusters (Mother of Storms) to glorified men’s adventure (The Timeline Wars trilogy), with an orthogonal side-step in fantasy fable with One for the Morning Glory. And yet, over a career that now spans two decades, his most solid work may be the cycle initiated by Ten Thousand Doors: four novels charting the life of special operative Giraut Leones as he works in a far-flung future where humanity has colonized thousands of planets.

The first novel in the series was interesting and almost charming, but the second one (Earth Made of Glass) ended on such a terrible note that it felt like a sucker punch: The double whammy of a failed marriage and a failed mission, with the likely death of an entire planet as a consequence. Not the kind of stuff that’s worth cheering for, especially when it looked like the end of the story for Giraut.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. As The Merchants of Souls picks up, Giraut is still reeling from the aftermath of his divorce and what has since become known as “the Briand disaster”. Friends get together to cheer him up, but nothing works like getting back in the saddle again. Before he can catch his breath, Giraut is once more an Office of Special Projects operative. This time, he’s headed for Earth and its billions of inhabitants at centre of human civilization. But he’s not working alone, and this time he’s trying to stop all of human society from making a big mistake. What’s more, he has no clue who his true enemies are, or what they’re up to…

Beyond the “portal” technology linking all thousand planets together, the most distinguishing feature of Barnes’ “Thousand Cultures Universe” has been the “psypyx”, a device allowing another mind to “ride” a functioning human. This usually takes place for medical purposes, as a clone is force-grown for a psypyx personality back-up: To train their mind, resurrected personalities undergo a period of apprenticeship by re-learning human skill in someone else’s skull. Perhaps the best thing about The Merchant of Souls is how it plays with the concept, both as a plot driver and as am innovative feature of the narration.

Giraut gets fitted with a psypyx not only to help out a friend who is about to be re-born, but also to demonstrate (on OSP’s orders) something vital to the teeming population of Earth. As humanity has retreated further and further in entertainment-driven lives, some are pushing for psypyx exploitation: imagine the lure of millions of lives saved on silicon, ready to be popped into the entertainment console for cheap thrills. The fact that those are human lives and not ready-made casual entertainment barely resonates among those pushing for the exploitation of that particular natural resource: in fact, they’re denying that psypyx images are even sentient. Giraut, allowing an old childhood friend (Raimbaut) access to his mind and body, hopes to convince the decision-makers that this isn’t the case. From a special operative, he’s reluctantly forced into the role of a lobbyist.

And so The Merchants of Souls goes on, with the added narrative twist that the tale is told by two narrators sharing a single body. This makes for curious scenes and ellipses, as Giraut may go to sleep just to allow Raimbaut to do his thing (or vice-versa). Hilarity ensues when both of them end up falling for different women. While the mechanics of body-sharing can be a cause for some head-scratching, it adds another layer of interest to a novel that, for a long time, seems to spin its wheels.

Let’s be clear about this: The Merchants of Souls is never dull, but there are times, especially in the middle third, where it looks as if the plot is just idling and waiting for something to happen. If it’s an intentional ploy, it works remarkably well: When the third act kicks in, it does so with an event so shocking that it sends the novel spinning in another direction entirely. Suddenly, psypyx-drilling becomes a front for something much more dangerous. While this part of the tale isn’t flawless (Barnes can be a bit abrupt and gloss over crucial details when the action starts firing up), it strengthens what had been, up until then, a moderately good but unspectacular SF novel.

It also made me reconsider a number of things I didn’t initially enjoy about the series. Now that I’ve seen where Barnes intended to go with this book, Earth Made of Glass suddenly feels a lot more appropriate as a step away from the innocence of the first novel. With its juiced-up ending, The Merchants of Souls fulfils its potential and promises much for the fourth volume, The Armies of Memory, which made it in bookstores as I was reading this volume. You can be sure that it’s going on the pile of things to read.

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