John Barnes

The Last President, John Barnes

The Last President, John Barnes

Ace, 2012, 400 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-93700715-7

As of mid-2014, John Barnes has written thirty-three books and I have read twenty-two of them, with eight more somewhere in my to-be-read stacks. (What I’ve got left to read quickly gets into his early-career juvenilia and obscure titles long out of print.) I mention this as a feeble claim to authority when I say that when it comes to Barnes, I have come to expect the unexpected.  He’s one of my favourite SF writers despite/because I’m never too sure how I’ll react to any given book.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there are good Barnes novels, there are bad Barnes novels but there are no dull Barnes novels.  Over the years, I have become convinced that he is a bit bored, disillusioned and maybe even disappointed with the genre SF readership.  How else to explain the constant subversion of expectations, the nose-tweaking, the genre-hopping to be found in his bibliography?  Reading Barnes is like being dared to go past hidebound genre expectations, even when he’s demonstrably working within the traditions of Science Fiction.

The price to pay for liking such an unpredictable author is that, from time to time, he ends up writing a novel that doesn’t require assessing as much as explainingThe Last President, third book in the Daybreak series and arguably the concluding volume in a trilogy, in one of those: With the wrong expectations, it’s a dud, but with the right expectations it becomes half-way interesting.

It almost goes without saying that the rest of this commentary will include complete spoilers for the end of this book.  There are no other ways to discuss it.  For reasons that will soon become clear, that this is a novel (heck, a series) best spoiled rotten from beginning to end, as readers prepared for what Barnes has in mind have better chances of appreciating what he is trying to do.  I’m going to write two further non-spoiler paragraphs and then I’m going to delve deep into the keys to The Last President.

What about a few general thoughts about the book?  It’s written cleanly, although some of the Midwestern geography gets esoteric without a map.  Long-time Barnes readers will note that after a Daybreak Zero that was generally exempt of sexual violence (one of the author’s recurring motifs), we get a far-too-rough-sex scene just in time to make us lose sympathy for a character who is then promptly killed.  Barnes has written elsewhere about how this third book was written more closely to his vision for the series than the first two heavily-edited ones, and while this does show in smoother pacing and scene transitions, it’s not a radically different reading experience.

Last non-spoiler stuff: What makes this Daybreak trilogy interesting, as far as catastrophic slides into post-apocalyptic mayhem are concerned, is the titular concept of “Daybreak”: the idea that a substantial number of humans would execute a variety of plans designed to make human civilization regress hundreds of years in the past and ensure that we’d stay there.  That’s Nightmare Fuel stuff as far as I’m concerned, and I suspect that it’s a reason why, despite my overall distaste for Barnes’ goals in writing the series, it has occupied such an unusually large space in my thoughts since I’ve finished the book a few days ago.

OK, on to the good spoiler-full stuff: The Last President concludes this Daybreak trilogy with a downbeat tone exemplified by two overlaid let-downs:  The protagonists of the trilogy lose their bid to rebuild the United States of America, and Daybreak is revealed to be a creation of aliens determined to destroy human civilization.


Let’s tackle the aliens first.  As far as science-fictional ideas go, “paranoid aliens kneecap human civilization before it causes them trouble” is a pretty good one.  Alice Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” still gives me the notional heebie-jeebies, and buried deep into my files is the manuscript of a (bad) novel using that exact same premise (even down to the “next step is them coming here to finish the job” send-off which also figures in The Last President)  But a good idea doesn’t necessarily mean an appropriate idea, and its use as a definitive answer for Daybreak isn’t nearly as compelling as I thought it would be when I first supposed it while reading the first volume.  Daybreak is a lot scarier as a purely human creation, arising in the collective unconscious as a response to the contemporary environment.  It’s also more appropriate to have human protagonists fighting another human creation: making it come from aliens takes it deep into “unfair” territory, and comes close to trivializing the struggle against Daybreak when the deck is stacked so obviously against civilization.

But, you know, cool idea –well-presented if perhaps revealed a bit too late like the cherry on a sundae.

Still, it becomes a forgivable weaker point when compared to the other big let-down of the novel: the idea that the forces of civilization (as represented, perhaps pretentiously, by the attempts to keep the United States government intact) are served a resounding defeat in their efforts to fight back against Daybreak.  Not to put a fine point on it, they spend roughly half the book winning battles and spanking Daybreaker hordes, only to be ambushed by authorial fiat and lose for the rest of the novel, until the United States are no more than a handful of separated fiefdoms.

That’s quite a bit more problematic than aliens, especially as the conclusion of a trilogy.  Genre readers have been conditioned to expect the pot at the end of the rainbow, so to speak.  We read fiction for the hardships, but also with the expectation that something will be a bit better at the end despite the terrible prices paid along the way.  This is especially true the longer the work: I don’t particularly care if a character dies at the end of a short story: I haven’t had time to attach myself.  But a trilogy requires a far bigger investment in time, and my expectations of a reward go up correspondingly.  So when I tackle a series that starts with the apocalypse and sets out with the stated goal of keeping the United States together, it’s kind of, oh, a massive disappointment when the ending consists of characters shrugging and telling themselves that at least they tried.  The book doesn’t end in defeat as much as in dramatically lowered expectations, and a bit of hope for the bits and pieces left.  (There’s also a bit of dramatic irony in how Daybreak is ultimately dismantled not by the cleverness of characters fighting for peace, order and good government, but by the ruthless plans of a back-wood dictator going for a power-grab.  Let’s put the worst facets of humanity against each other and see who wins…)

But before climbing the barricades of outrage, let’s take a moment to second-guess this first reaction and double-check that my expectations as a reader were the same as those with which Barnes wrote the series.  Because the piece of information that is essential in understanding the Daybreak trilogy is this: Barnes is an iconoclast, and he’s not entirely unsympathetic to the destruction of civilization as he describes in his series.  As he writes on his Amazon page:

I like writing on all sides of an issue, and in this case it was particularly easy because fundamentally, I’m a Luddite; if I could figure out a way to make Daybreak happen and send us all back to steam trains and biplanes without killing a few billion people, I would be sorely tempted, but at the same time I recognize that emotional response as idiotic…

I couldn’t be any less sympathetic to this point of view (I really, really like civilization) but I’m trying not to take it personally: Barnes’ entire bibliography, as fascinating and varied and exasperating as it can be at times, is filled with examples of him writing to get some reaction out of his readership.  It’s no exaggeration to write that, as far as this trilogy’s characters are concerned, Barnes is Daybreak in the most literal sense, especially when, on his blog (and elsewhere; Barnes hasn’t been shy in discussing his series), he admits that…

…the reason for engineering the Seven Nations Future in such a complex way is surprisingly simple: I wanted a huge canvas for all kinds of adventures, and it took a pretty big story to set that up. I wanted to contrive a dieselpunk kind of world that would never be wiped out by computers and nukes, as was the interwar era where so many of my favorite pulp adventures took place.

So there’s the important takeaway, and key to the series so far: this Daybreak trilogy was never about readers seeing characters winning the war against the Daybreakers, regaining their iPhones and rebuilding a modern civilization: it was about Barnes setting up a fictional playground for further adventures.  The deck was stacked against the defenders of civilization from the onset, both from Barnes’ affections and from his ultimate goals.

I can respect the series a lot more now that I know this.  I also expect that in the later grand scheme of things, after Barnes has had time to write further novels in this universe, the initial Daybreak trilogy will be regarded for its true nature: the opening cycle of a much longer Seven Nations Future series.  I’m still not too sure, mind you, that a trilogy was the best way to go: A novel could have low-balled the sensation of betrayal, while a long-running unified series à la Song of Ice and Fire would merely see the first three books as prologue.

But so it goes with any Barnes novel, which aren’t usually to be read unless we’re committed to a bit of a struggle and soul-searching about expectations.  I’m amused to see that The Last President, as of mid-2014, has an average Amazon reviews ranking of 3.5 stars, but those reviews are widely scattered across the five stars spectrum: Such a novel ends up getting reactions all over the map, and that’s the way Barnes seems to like it.  Given that this review is roughly twice as long as my usual ones, you can gather that I have engaged with the novel to an unusual extent, that that I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I liked it.  What’s confirmed, though, is that I’m eagerly waiting for the next Barnes novel with no other expectations than being surprised.

Daybreak Zero, John Barnes

Daybreak Zero, John Barnes

Ace, 2011, 400 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01975-5

While I generally agree that all novels should stand upon themselves and require as little contextual knowledge as possible, there are exceptions. John Barnes has always been a surprisingly challenging author (his repertoire of authorial motifs often includes sexual violence, repellant protagonists, deliberate antagonism of his core-SF audience, tragic endings, and at least one novel in which the entire universe surrounding the protagonists changed every few pages) and in his case, I believe that as much external knowledge of the work is usually preferable.

While Daybreak Zero may look like a bog-standard post-apocalyptic second-volume-of-a-trilogy, at least one piece of information may help in understanding it. [August 2014: Actually, two pieces of information may be best, but after reading the third volume of the trilogy, I’ve moved the second item to the review of the third volume. As a hint, though: The trilogy was never meant to restore civilized order, but to set up another series.)

So: keep in mind that the book was the result of a somewhat unfriendly editing process. The story, simply put, is that Barnes was attempting a sprawling post-apocalyptic trilogy in his usual in-your-face fashion at a new publisher. (After years and dozens of novels published by Tor, this was Barnes’ first experience with Ace) Conversely, Ace wanted a safe and comfortable SF trilogy with clear heroes, despicable antagonists and a focused storyline. Add to that the industry context (falling sales during a recession, mid-list writers being squeezed out of the industry, the 2010 sea change in ebooks as signaled by the quick uptake of the iPad) and you can see how a novel like Daybreak Zero could be affected. As he writes on his too-infrequent blog…

So the first two books were chopped way, way, way down, with me trying to keep them sprawling and ambiguous and undecided and interesting, like the world, and the editor trying to narrow them down to one-hero-one-problem-on-one-side like movies-on-the-reader’s-forehead. One way we frequently compromised was that I got to have some of the material left in but with scenes shortened

So that probably explain the stop-and-go pacing of Daybreak Zero, which takes a break to tell us how a scoutmaster was able to survive an all-inclusive apocalypse, while setting up traitorous plot developments as quickly as it can knock them out in the next scene. There’s a bit of discontinuity to the book that could have been smoothed out with more breathing room. (Not helped along by a structure that takes place almost all “in real time” with quick little scenes that offer little opportunity for time-skipping such as “for the past three weeks, our characters had done this…”) A surprising amount of stuff takes place off-screen, or so quickly on the page that it may have not been there at all.

I mention this because it helps a lot in forgiving some of the irritants in Daybreak Zero. I had a few others that were my own fault –I read Directive 51 four years ago, and didn’t remember some of the crucial details: So I was all ready with indignant objections that so many people would be part of Daybreak, until I was reminded that it was a self-sustaining memetic system partially prefigured by Barnes’ own One True series.

Mind you, it doesn’t explain away the novel’s lack of overall plot development: Despite the trips and decisions taken, deaths of viewpoint characters (no less than four of them!), and ominous final developments, the shape of the world as the novel begins is very, very similar to the one it ends with despite pieces being moved on the checkerboard; the third novel, The Last President, should settle how useful this middle volume truly was.

Still, I’m rather pleased by Daybreak Zero. The entire concept of Daybreak is ingeniously infuriating (although I do hope that its mysteries get cleared up nicely in the next volume), one character gets a terrifying arc from nerdy hero to brainwashed villain and, as is usual with Barnes’ work, Daybreak Zero remains a pleasure to read with plenty of narrative velocity. It doesn’t quite amount to much more than interesting sequences furiously aligned one after another, but that’s part of the problem in second-volumes of trilogies.

Fortunately, those second volumes also require quite a bit less hand-holding than first volumes. Now let’s see what Barnes intend to do to close the story.

Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes

Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes

Viking, 2009, 532 pages, C$23.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06081-8

One of the paradoxes of genre publishing is that it can be as comforting in its ghetto-like nature as it can stifle those looking to try something new.  Genre fans can provide a certain predictable sales baseline, but convincing them to try something outside the boundaries of the genre can be difficult.  For every Dan Simmons able to write equally well in science-fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, there are a plenty of other SF writers getting no success trying to sell techno-thrillers.

Then there are those who seem to relish breaking genre conventions.  John Barnes is, in many ways, the model of a mid-list SF genre writer, but his lengthy bibliography is filled with oddities and small surprises.  In addition to a solid core bibliography of Science Fiction novels written for adult and young adult audiences, Barnes also wrote less conventional speculative fiction: From a trilogy of men’s adventure thrillers to a light-hearted fantasy to a meta-SFictional tall tale to hard-SF novels written in collaboration with Buzz Aldrin, Barnes manages to defy and subvert expectations once every two or three novels.  I’ve got most of his bibliography (Heck, I even have his early obscure “Time Raider” trilogy in my stack of things to read) and I’m still surprised by what he dares to do.

Now, with Tales of the Madman Underground, he turns his attention to mainstream young adult fiction.  Taking place in 1973 Ohio, this YA novel shows a few hints of Barnes’ SF pedigree: The main character read Philip K Dick and has to turn to a convention-going classmate for explanations.  A few other references can be read as reassuring winks to Barnes’ existing audience (who may be familiar with Barnes’ other young-adult Science Fiction novels), but Tales of the Madman Underground is otherwise a completely mainstream teen novel.

It takes place over the first six days of Karl Shoemaker’s senior High School year.  He has the best of intentions: To be normal.  “Normal”, in Karl’s case, is a challenge.  Not everyone lives with an unstable widowed mother and dozens of quasi-feral cats.  Not everyone works five jobs and has to hide their money from their flighty mom.  Not everyone is a recovering alcoholic teen.  Not everyone has been branded a psychopath, sent to group therapy and pre-emptively condemned to a permanent psychological record.  Karl’s goal is to take his last year one day at a time, and be as normal as possible to avoid returning to “the Madman Underground.”  It’s not that his best friends aren’t Madmen… but he’d rather try to be normal for a while.

I’m not going to attempt guessing how much of Tales of the Madman Underground is nostalgia for Barnes (who was 16 in 1973); it’s more useful to note that this is a novel by an experienced novelist, and that the result is a solid success.  The atmosphere of a small Midwestern town is described with idiosyncratic flavour and the characters that surround Karl are richly sketched.  The titular Madmen may have been designated as broken minds by the system, but the novel shows how even the most distressed of them can depend on each other for support and so deserve our sympathy.  (In one of the book’s best scenes, they show up the school’s newest therapist… and find out that she’s an unexpected ally.)  Karl himself is a likable protagonist, emboldened and hardened by situations that others would find desperate.  We root for him to a rare degree, and the small victories that constitute his ultimate triumph are earned many times over.

Karl’s narration is direct, suitably profane, and addictive from the very first few pages.  The terrific dialogue is a joy to read, making the 500+pages book seem much shorter.  The narrative flow isn’t complicated, but it’s enlivened by numerous subplots (many of them relating to Karl’s numerous side-jobs) and a series of stories about the Madman Underground’s most memorable adventures.  Set in 1973, it seems just as relevant today.

Anyone who has read more than two Barnes novels knows that he can write dark-and-repulsive like the worst of them.  And while Tales of the Madman Underground has its share of uncomfortable moments (including a sequence where we’re temporarily brought to doubt the reliability of the potentially-psychotic narrator), it features one of Barnes’ most sympathetic character yet and it leads to an unusually triumphant conclusion.  The obstacles facing Karl are formidable, but they’re overcome fairly and the last few pages are smiles upon smiles.  It adds up to one of Barnes’ most enjoyable books yet, and a rare one of his that can be described as unabashedly upbeat.  Even die-hard genre SF fans willing to genre-hop and follow Barnes in his historical adventure will get much out of it.

Directive 51, John Barnes

Directive 51, John Barnes

Ace, 2010, 483 pages, $32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01822-2

One of the reasons why I’m quickly cooling off on Science Fiction’s current post-apocalyptic craze is my nagging suspicion that not everyone sees the apocalypse (whether it’s climate-, alien- or zombie-driven) as a bad thing.  There’s a streak of wish-fulfillment in “rebuilding the world” fantasies that makes me uneasy: I love the comforts of our civilization, and anyone talking about bringing it down strikes me as an enemy more than a romantic.

Knowing this, you can probably guess why the opening section of John Barnes’ Directive 51 struck such a deep chord: As this first novel in a new trilogy begins, an uncoordinated group of eco-saboteurs, disaffected college students, back-to-the-Earth dreamers, international terrorists and other miscellaneous hoodlums spontaneously act on the belief that October 28th, 2024 is “Daybreak”: The day modern civilization dies.  Three particularly nasty pieces of work have a disproportionate impact on the story: A biological critter that disintegrates plastic and rubber, some nanotech that eats electronics, and the kidnapping of the US Vice-President.  While the breathless thriller of the vice-presidential kidnapping unfolds, our heroes from the US “Department of the Future” are introduced: a couple of brainy protagonists who desperately try to figure out what’s happening even as the world breaks down around them.

It’s too late, though: As plastics melt away, electronics are reduced to dust and the US president declares himself mentally unfit to cope with the situation, order breaks down in more ways than one.  Before long, our protagonists are stuck between an implausibly clueless acting president, an ultra-right-wing challenger, massive systemic shortages and increasing violence.  It gets even worse as evidence accumulates that Daybreak was carefully orchestrated with follow-up strikes designed to wipe out any hope of recovery.  As the book ends, the duelling Presidents of the United States have to confront one question: Is there still an active campaign against them, or are they stuck dealing with a dead man’s switch?  (We readers, having been made privy to one crucial half-page scene [P.220], know better: something is going on, and I’d be surprised if the next volumes don’t explain how Daybreak was less spontaneous than it may first appear.)

Given that this is the first volume of a trilogy, it’s no surprise if Directive 51 is all set-up with partial payoff: Much of the book is spent contemplating the rapid destruction of modern American civilization (with late and occasional glances at the rest of the world, which doesn’t do any better) through viewpoint characters who either caused part of it to happen or are desperately trying to mitigate the millions of deaths that follow.

Frequent readers of these reviews know that I’ve been a fan of John Barnes’ work for a long time and so shouldn’t be surprised if I end up soft-pedaling a number of Directive 51’s annoyances.  The first chunk of the book is more irritating than the rest: In an effort to telescope as many things as possible in his “One Day” structure, Barnes’ hand is more obvious than usual in the interlocking plotting.  Worse, though, is that much of the book’s first third is spent with the terrorists, saboteurs and fools who initiate Daybreak: There’s nothing pleasant in reading about people you just want to hit on the head (with something suitably low-tech, such as a shovel or even just a baseball bat) for bringing about the end of civilization.  This explains, in part, why the VP-kidnapping subplot feels so thrilling: here’s a chance for heroics against the impending doom that cloys the rest of the novel.

The novel gets more interesting after Daybreak is over, as our characters get the chance to be protagonists, are stuck in an impossible crisis of succession and more unusual plotting elements get their chance to shine.  The first presidential succession crisis is great good fun for political junkies readers, posing questions about personal responsibility in serving the nation even when it contradicts regulations.  Few non-rabidly political novelists ever end up writing about gunfire and insanity in the White House, so Barnes at least has that running in his favour.

But what the second chunk of the book (“Ten Days”) ends up revealing is a curiously bloodless approach to the end of civilization: Cities burn, libraries are torched, super-weapons are detonated, billions of people die and the narration barely raises an eyebrow.  It takes a while to understand that the disaster is not limited to the US, and the novel seems to be in such a hurry to tear everything down that it barely manages to give us a sense of how bad it’s getting: There are a few moments in the narrative where the characters coolly mention how Daybreak is irreversible, that it will destroy all electronics, that it will take hundreds of years to recover from it (if ever) and those one-liners are everything we get in order to realize that this is as bad as it gets.  Perhaps worse is the lack of resentment and regret from the characters at how primitive their situation has become in a matter of days: A couple of saboteurs are treated sympathetically (well, sort of; as so often happens in John Barnes’s novels, one of them gets raped –albeit off-screen in an unusual show of restraint, although see “bloodless” above.) and even the so-called heroes end up saying things of comfort to the Daybreakers.  Hard-SF is about brainy readers more than emotive characters, but even that stance be carried too far.

On the other hand… this novel has haunted me more than most of the others I’ve read this year.  I’d acknowledge my unusual attachment to civilization if it wasn’t for the fact that you’re reading this on a website, maybe from devices that didn’t exist as recently as five years ago.  Everyone has their particular nightmares, and when my own Maslowian hierarchy of needs is nicely fulfilled, I worry a lot about the fragility of our contemporary way of life.

Then there’s the entertainment value of the scattered political outlook of the novel.  Barnes is a professional contrarian, and it’s amusing to see how he tweaks current partisan outlooks as the world of the novel changes around its characters.  There’s some sympathy for ultra-rich libertarians as they finally get to make use of their “Castles” enclaves built during the Obama administration even as the novel concerns itself with the (re)establishment of a national government.  A right-ring evangelical politician initially disliked by the book’s progressive heroes ends up rising to the occasion and being a preferable alternative to a delusional old-school Democrat.  Part of Directive 51‘s effectiveness lies in showing how crises can change our certitudes, so it’s no surprise if hyper-partisan readers will be upset at the novel’s shifting political sands.  More independently-minded readers will have more fun –especially when reading the reviews accusing the novel of being a mouthpiece for whatever extremism is convenient.

There’s also the fact that John Barnes is a seasoned SF writer, so that even when he errs, he’s able to deliver what his SF-reading public wants.  Directive 51 cleverly combines science-fictional concerns with a techno-thriller narrative mode to deliver a novel that’s up to the latest SF gadgets while delivering the thrills we expect from such a large-scale canvas.  When it gets ripping into the mechanics of pure fusion bombs, it directly scratches the sense of wonder that his readers are looking for.  (It’s also an eloquent piece of evidence for critics who argue that techno-thrillers and hard-SF are basically the flip sides of the same storytelling impulses.)  I happen to be unusually susceptible to the kind of narrative strategies used in this novel, so that purring sound you hear from my frantic pre-ordering of the book’s sequels may not necessarily translate into any similar affection from anyone else.

Ultimately, though, the flaws and virtues of Directive 51 will be best appreciated once the story it’s starting to tell will be over.  Barnes has often upset the narrative certitudes of his previous series, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the upcoming Daybreak Zero ends up telling a different story than what we can predict.  In the meantime, Directive 51 is a flawed but fascinating end-of-the-world narrative that does a few new and interesting things.  It’s good enough to satisfy even those who are tired of SF’s current depressive phase.  Unlike all of the zombie or post-oil catastrophes, it asks the far more disturbing question: What if some people actually worked toward the end of the world as we know it?

Gaudeamus, John Barnes

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.

Finity, John Barnes

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.

In the Hall of the Martian King, John Barnes

Warner Aspect, 2003, 294 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61083-6

Well, it had to happen. After two books of generally likable action and adventure featuring young adult protagonist Jak Jinnaka, Barnes finally drops the hammer on his characters in the second half of In the Hall of the Martian King. Happy Barnes characters are generally an anomaly: sooner or later, the real world comes calling.

If you’re familiar with the rebellious, rabble-rousing Jak Jinnaka, the first few pages of this third volume are a bit of a shock: Jak seems to have settled down and is using his skills for a good cause. He’s now a capable bureaucrat stationed in Martian orbit, tasked with the mission of keeping things together just as his boss goes away on an extended holiday. From an undisciplined teen, Jak has now embraced responsibility and supervisory duties. All is well, except for one small archaeological discovery.

One tiny, insignificant unearthing of the all-encompassing “lifelog” of a major religious figure. An object that everyone wants, regardless of political authority. Before the end of the fourth chapter, Jak is already making end-runs around his own bureaucracy, setting plans in motion to capture the log for his true employers. If he could just be left alone, things would unfold smoothly. Alas, before even realizing it, Jak is surrounded by a menagerie of friends, fools, enemies and ex-lovers. His capabilities as a bureaucrat are taxed as he’s got to spend more time protecting an ignorant aristocrat against his worst instincts than successfully leading the diplomatic negotiations required to secure the artifact.

This first half of the novel is very, very enjoyable. It’s easily one of the highlights of the series so far: There’s a pleasant “lone competent man against the universe” feel to this section, one that brings to mind Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series of adventures. Barnes takes on the tone of a farce, and seeing Jak trying to keep all the spinning plates from crashing into the ground is hilarious. Nearly all of the series’ recurring characters are brought together in a tiny space, and the various plots and counter-plots are a delight to follow.

But pretty soon, even the fanciest diplomatic footwork can’t substitute for direct action. And this is where, true to the series’ structure so far, things change. Every book of the Jak Jinnaka series so far has been divided in two distinct sections, and the division in this third volume is more dramatic than most: The action spins out of control, and even a satisfying victory turns to a nightmare when one recurring character is killed.

This also marks he shift in tone from a lighthearted farce to a steely-eyed political thriller. Jak has to deal with his grief, settle a few unresolved issues, face down the web of manipulation in which he’s been snared and look at a world that’s much meaner than he expected. The conclusion of the entire story has resonance with John Le Carré’s implacable tales of realpolitik in which bad things happen to people who are worth more dead than alive. This leads Jak ready to face more adventures (as yet unwritten), but those are likely to be a touch darker in tone.

Fortunately, it’s not all gloom and depression for most of the book’s duration. Barnes’ strong narrative skills keep the book rolling along, and the verve of his prose once again bring to mind the usual comparisons with Heinlein. Barnes, though, has a stronger grasp of socio-political issues, and In The Hall of the Martian King is just as adept as its predecessors at integrating cool ideas with the flow of the story. The “Wager” of Jak’s universe is finally explained, with potentially wide-reaching consequences for upcoming books in the series.

Despite the abrupt turns in tone, and the growing darkness of the universe, the Jak Jinnaka series has been a terrific trilogy so far, and shows ample potential for further volumes. Barnes just has to write them; I’ll be there to buy them.

A Princess of the Aerie, John Barnes

Warner Aspect, 2003, 319 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61082-8

Veteran John Barnes readers were shaken by A Duke of Uranium. the first volume of his “Jik Jinnaka” series: Here was a John Barnes with no horrid violence, no non-consensual sex, no last chapter that killed everyone in sight. In fact, the novel was practically a Heinlein juvenile with a bit more sex and action: an old-fashioned SF novel that tried real hard to please everyone and made a serious stab at the YA market. Knowing Barnes’ tendency to drop the hammer on his characters when they least expect it, could he sustain such an atmosphere in further volumes of the series? Follow-up A Princess of the Aerie answers that with a resounding “Oh, you knew what was coming…”

But before explaining what didn’t turn out so well, let’s take a moment to be grateful for what has been carried over from the first novel. The quasi-Heinleinian narration is back, with its mixture of future world-building, unusual slang, snappy dialogue and efficient prose. It doesn’t take much time to be sucked into A Princess of the Aerie, especially not when Jak gets a cry for help: His old girlfriend (previously established as a princess in the previous volume) needs his help in dealing with a big problem, and Jak’s covert training is perfect for the job.

So far, so good. But the wind starts to turn once Jak gets to the Aerie: Much to his dismay, he avoids being killed, discovers that the cry for help was an authentic fake, and that his ex-girlfriend is now deeply into kinky domination games. Barnes’ streak of books without non-consensual sex ends shortly in A Princess of the Aerie as Jak is manipulated into sexual mind-games for his ex-girlfriend’s unabashed entertainment. (The unspoken moral of the story is something like “don’t let a super-powerful girlfriend mess with your brain chemistry, despite the hot sex you may think you’re getting out of it.”) Suffice to say that the novel solidly establishes itself as one that all Young Adults will want to read… despite their parents’ objections.

It’s handled with a smile, but a bittersweet one. Jak eventually realizes the extent to which he has fooled himself, and what an absolutely corrupt person his ex-girlfriend has been all along. But he doesn’t get much time to think about it: before realizing it, he’s exiled on what’s called an important covert operation on service to the Aerie.

That is the breaking cue for another interplanetary travel sequence that may bring back memories of the first volume. Some characters return and some familiar games are played, leaving readers with an impression not only of deja-vu, but also of a broken plot: why spend so much time on Jak’s betrayal if the real story is going to take place elsewhere?

Jak and friends eventually end up on Mercury, where Barnes explains what he didn’t have to in the first volume: In the world of Jak Jinnaka, Mercury ends up being the lowest rung on the lowest ladder, a hellish place where everyone is naturally exploited by physics and the way the economy is structured. The planet’s only output is precious metals, and the working environment isn’t for wussies: Everyone works hard and dies young. Police enforcement is practically non-existent. Amazingly enough, things are getting worse: The normally metastable power dynamics of the competing factions is upset by the arrival of a ruthless new faction, and it’s up to Jak and his few friends to correct the problem. Class credits may be at stake.

Jak’s universe constantly gets darker and more dangerous throughout the novel, and if the outcome of his mission is never truly in doubt, the real meat of the novel is in the sacrifices he has to make in order to settle the issue. Progressively, we come to understand the bitterness of the opening foreword in which Jak is dismissed by his ex-best friend. As Jak progresses, he finds out the lies and dangers in being turned into a hero. Poor guy: finds out his ex-girlfriend is a witch, loses his friends, has his reputation trashed on system-wide media…

And yet, one comes away from A Princess of the Aerie with the unaccountable feeling that this is, in fact, a pretty fun book. Despite the plot that goes awry, despite the gathering clouds, despite the foreboding that Jak is going to be way over his head in the third volume, the reading pleasure of this volume remains intact. I may still not be convinced by the girlfriend’s abrupt revelation as a Machiavellian sociopath, but I’m not going to complain (much) either. What is noticeable, though, if how the series now seems more aligned to Barnes’ known track record. Despite knowing better, I’m really looking forward to In the Hall of Martians Kings.

The Duke of Uranium, John Barnes

Warner Aspect, 2002, 290 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61081-X

There was a time, early in John Barnes’ career, when Science Fiction commentators tried to nominate him as one of the numerous “New Heinleins” that were supposed to take the grandmaster’s place. The comparison never quite fit (Barnes’ depiction of violence alone would disqualify him, let alone the pessimism that can mark some of his work), but there has always been something in his prose to prompt the association.

With The Duke of Uranium, the potential for comparison is even more obvious than usual: It doesn’t take more than a chapter to understand that this is what a Heinlein juvenile would look like had it been strained through the past fifty years. Living in a space colony called The Hive where collectivism is the norm, Jak Jinnaka is a young man who loves to play the bad boy, something that’s less charming now that he’s at the end of an educational cycle. But his life spins out of his control when he learns that people around him aren’t all what they appear to be: His uncle is a spymaster and his girlfriend is a princess. Both of these relationships comes into play when he’s instructed to go rescue his kidnapped girlfriend.

What follows is a romp through part of a far-future solar system, and this is where the classic John Barnes touch truly distinguishes itself. The Duke of Uranium could have been just another middle-drawer SF adventure to feed the undemanding hordes browsing the SF section, but here a simple adventure becomes a canvas on which several fascinating ideas can play off each other. There’s The Wager, for instance, an ill-defined set of maxims and conventions that have come to rule human society. There’s the aftermath of the Human/Rubahy war looming over everyone, as remote arbitrators may decide to wipe out both races for daring to go to war against each other. The solar system is a collection of fragmented entities and social systems that somehow manage to work together. A good chunk of the book is spent in-transit from the Hive to buck-shot Earth by way of Mercury, but we see only a small part of the whole picture. Further entries in the series will presumably map other areas of the solar system.

Depsite my aversion to series, this is a good thing: If you like The Duke of Uranium, you will be asking for more. Further inviting comparisons with Heinlein, Barnes here adopts a crystal-clear narration that wisely lets the characters speak in all their chatty charm. Barnes uses future slang like few other writers would have the guts to do, but it does hang together well, and after a while it just becomes another element of hanging out with Jik and his toves. (Language geeks will have fun trying to piece together the various roots of the slang.)

The prose style has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost golden-age SF but handled with a modern post-Varley sensitivity. Such contemporary touches include fairly liberal sexual mores among Jik’s cohort and hints of fairly dark forces at play somewhere above our characters’ heads, which will probably become more important later during the series given Barnes’ fondness for nastiness. (A prologue suggests that Jak will become notorious, reckless and not universally loved.)

Fans of Barnes work are probably going to tear through this book in the hope of catching some of Barnes’ usual social speculations, and they won’t be disappointed: beyond the intriguing world-building mentioned above, there is eventually some fascinating material about conspiracies to influence human society (a very, very illegal thing to do in this universe) and hints of deeper developments later on. For ex-fans of John Barnes put off by his occasional bleakness, this is one of his “safe” novels: the relatively tame violence mostly happens to people who deserve it, the sex is consensual and no apocalypse happens during the book, though we’re led to understand that this is an unusually calm period in human history.

It adds up to a very satisfying book with the roaring pace of a YA novel, infused with enough big ideas to keep even the most reluctant adult SF readers interested. This may not be a classic in any sense of the term (indeed, it almost feels like a vacation for everyone involved), but it’s a novel in which everything clicks: the setting, the characters, the prose and the plotting all achieve a nice synergy, and the result is good enough not only to keep us coasting to the end, but to make us look forward to the sequel. Bring on A Princess of the Aerie!

The Armies of Memory, John Barnes

Tor, 2006, 429 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30330-2

Mmm. Crow. Delicious.

Reviewers make mistake. It’s part of the so-called job description. Most often, reviewers (indeed, readers) screw up because of a lack of information. Say, when they criticize a book’s ending without knowing that another volume is on the way. Readers wondering about my bias toward single volumes should realize that it’s only one way of lessening my chances of screwing up.

But accidents still slip through, and my disappointed review of John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass was one such accident. It wasn’t before reading The Merchants of Souls that I realized my mistake and vowed to do better. This reevaluation is further confirmed by The Armies of Memory, a fourth volume that does exactly what fourth volumes should do: Deliver a decent story, show the evolution of the characters and upset the series’ status quo.

The star of the story is still Giraut Leones. Officially, he has become a wildly popular artist. Privately, he’s still a covert operative for an agency designed to keep the peace in the known human universe. Giraud, now 50, has matured considerably since his introduction as a young adult in A Million Open Doors. His artistic notoriety is unsurpassed, and his covert job responsibilities now include overseeing a team of operatives.

Meanwhile, the imagined universe of the series has become lived-in: the AI uprising in the previous volume has had a number of social consequences (Giraut likes to belittle his servant AIs; the government is making an effort to take people out of the VR box) and new forces are emerging. Giraud even has the dubious privilege of seeing events of his own life turning into popular mythology, as the teachings of a man he knew are fuelling a growing religion. Worse yet are the repeated assassination attempts he is deliberately courting, as a way to flush out the opposing forces rising up against the government he’s protecting.

But occasional shootouts with crazed assassins are about to lose their interest when Giraud realizes another party out there is trying to reach him: Someone sent by a sliver of humanity that lives outside known space. Apparently, they’ve seen something out there, and they need help. What is this threat… and what will Giraud do to reach an agreement between all parties?

The problem with series fiction is usually that it gets stuck in a pattern. In an effort to provide “more of the same” to the readers of the series, characters become unchangeable, plots are recycled and nothing ever changes. But not here: The biggest strength of The Armies of Memory is not only to show how much the protagonist and setting of the series have changed since the first volume, but to genuinely upset the dynamics of the series, pushing some earlier assumptions to their logical end, twisting things so that villains espouse laudable motivations and readers must face new layers of complexity. It’s not as much showing the readers that everything they know is wrong: it’s a process of peeling apart layers of information, even when we thought that all the elements had been revealed. I’d love to tell you more, but this book is good enough to be read unspoiled, especially if you’re already familiar with the series. A warning, though: Barnes always includes a bit of horror in his stories, and this volume is no exception.

Barnes’ writing has seldom been better, and his description of Giraud is layered with meaning: Giraud’s been with Barnes since 1991, and this evolution is showing in how the character has been tempered from his early origins. As Barnes gets older himself, Giraut gets better, subtler and funnier. The gadgets of the Thousand Cultures universe surrounding him are explained but also weathered: the once-miraculous springers are now commonplace, and the once-vivid AI threats starts receding in the background once more.

What’s unfortunate is that the book does end on a bit of an abrupt note. Fortunately, I have learned my lesson and checked my facts: a fifth volume in the series is forthcoming. It remains to be seen how many extra twists and turns Barnes can cram into his established universe. He has written good and bad books, but the sequence in which The Armies of Memory is already taking place as his signature piece. It’s already more than a loose string of sequels: It’s a living, breathing, evolving epic, once that leverages to potential of separate books, exploits SF tools as they should be and delivers decent entertainment on top of everything else.

Mmm, crow. Delicious.

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.

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.

The Return, Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

Forge, 2000, 352 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-87424-3

Note from your reviewer: In these chronicles, I usually try to review every single new SF book I read. Alas, The Return is the type of satisfying thriller that doesn’t really warrant much extended critical thought. So, to get me out of my writing block loop, allow me to meta-review the five reviews currently up on Old-school moonwalker Buzz Aldrin teams up again with former Hugo and Nebula Awards nominee John Barnes (…)

Barnes hasn’t, unfortunately, fulfilled much of the promise he had shown earlier with such books as the massive Mother of Storms, the excellent A MIllion Open Doors, the juvenile Orbital Resonance or even his two first undistinguished novels that seemed to prefigure a strong socio-SF writer. His last few books have been a depressing sequel, a men’s adventure trilogy, an anthology and two unconvincing novels (Finity and Candle, both severely evaluated by critics.)

(…) the duo’s previous effort, 1996’s Encounter with Tiber (…)

To be fair, The Return is a lot more fun that Encounter with Tiber. Shorter, snappier, more interesting.

Part thriller, part infomercial for the Aldrin space manifesto,

…which only matters if you known about Aldrin’s commercial interests.

The New York Times Book Review, Gerald Jonas: The Return offers dovetailing accounts of a space emergency and rescue by three narrators … who sound like the same person.

Ouch! True, though.

f. from Massachusetts, USA: I enjoyed the beginning of this book. It started with a bang, and then just sort of fizzled out for me. The background, the launch and the “accident” I found interesting. It was the tedium of the aftermath that I found dull. The lawsuits, the guilt, the lawyers, that followed…yawn.

Oooohhh, there we disagree. The first chapters is nearly perfunctory; it brings the characters to the interesting situation. And this interesting situation is how, realistically, a private business would have to deal with disaster in space. That means media, lawsuits and lawyers. For all its faults, The Return has an air of realism that’s very well done.

(On the other hand, the book gets more an more far-fetched as it goes along and ventures from SF to techno-thriller.)

D.W from Rochester, New York: The first chapter of this book is AWFUL: a press conference with a smug first-person narrator just cramming back story down our throats.

Well… as I was saying…

After that, though, it really does get moving nicely, and by the end you do share Aldrin’s enthusiasm for getting us back into space.

Absolutely. There is no question that The Return is pro-space propaganda, and it does work quite well. There is a point in the novel where they essentially take away space’s practical benefit to modern society, and the desperation of everyone is real.

(…) and perhaps the most beautiful book I’ve seen in a while, with a translucent dust-jacket overtop of a glossy hard cover.

Eeek! No way! The dust jacket is translucent plastic, true, but the design is atrocious and, believe it or not, all the price, blurb, UPC information plus the author and title is only on the dust jacket. There is nothing on the glossy-bound book itself but an illustration! That, to me, is an unacceptable betrayal of the role of a dust jacket—to separate marketing from book, leaving title and author for “serious” library-builders. I can’t imagine the pain of shelving dust-jacket-free copies of this book. I really hope this doesn’t become a trend.

E.L. from West Palm Beach, FL: THE RETURN covers techno thriller territory familiar for readers of ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER.

Well, apart from the interstellar flights and the aliens…

D.S from Los Angeles California: The story tends to wander between courtroom intrigue, nostalgic family drama and techno thriller. (…) It is a fast and easy read at times exciting with the technical side explained in simple terms. A pleasant way to spend some summer reading time.

There really isn’t much more to say after that.

So what have we learned from this meta-reviewing exercise?

  1. readers know what they’re talking about. Usually.
  2. You can totally distort someone’s opinion with careful editing.
  3. Modern SF reviewers can steal stuff like never before
  4. The Return: Worth a look, but nothing overly impressive.

Earth Made of Glass, John Barnes

Tor, 1998, 416 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55161-3

Long-time John Barnes readers already know that he’s fascinated by the fate of societies. His first few novels were all hard-SF extrapolations of societies radically different from our own. A Million Open Doors was especially interesting, a tale of a carefree, artistic young man abruptly transferred into a repressive pragmatic theocracy. It many ways, it’s Barnes most enjoyable novel, with its carefully paced action, clean writing and upbeat finale.

Earth Made of Glass is an indirect sequel to A Million Open Doors. It takes place twelve years later and stars the two protagonists of the previous volume, but doesn’t really depend on the first book for full comprehension. Girault and Margaret have become special agents for the central government of the Thousand Cultures human civilization. Their job is to ensure that the integration of new cultures in the intersystem teleporter network is done without incident.

Briand is their biggest challenge yet: An inhospitable planet at the exception of a few secluded areas, it is host to two cultures who absolutely can’t tolerate each other. Girault and Margaret must not only find a way to eradicate this common hate and bring Briand in the Thousand Cultures, but also work on the problems that have begun to plague their marriage… guess what will be the most difficult task?

On the bright side, Earth Made of Glass vividly illustrates Barnes’ biggest strengths; clear writing, sustained plotting, a wealth of fun details and solid characters. Even better is his fascination with social dynamics; SF seems to be Barnes’ device to explore human politics and the result is sufficiently different from most SF to ensure interest. The ideas are there and they’re worth listening to.

On the other hand, this novel is less successful than its prequel for several reasons. While the societies explored here are complex and detailed, the wealth of minutiae often threatens to overwhelm the narration. Then there’s the fact that most Western readers won’t care a whit about either the Tamil or Maya societies—maybe that’s the intention, but it certainly doesn’t pack as much punch as a good ol’ Medievalist civilisation. (what about a non-literary society, too?)

That that’s nothing compared to how the characters behave. For someone as finely trained in the arts of artistic subtlety, Girault lets far too many clues pass him by. (Even distracted readers will pick up on elements of the conclusion long before the narrator) For someone as pragmatic and level-headed as Margaret, her behavioral motives appear awfully thin. As a matter of fact, everyone‘s motives don’t quite ring true, from Margaret to Girault, Ix and Auvaiyar… a lot as if Barnes just moved pieces across a board without covering up his efforts. It’s not always fun to see likable character acting stupidly; by the end of the book, you’ll be ready to want to slap around most of the characters for being such idiots.

Then there’s the bittersweet finale, when Barnes reverts to his early pessimism. The point might be valid, but it doesn’t help that it’s such a downer; what about the idea of structural balance?

Fortunately (or not), this volume is rife with setups for (at least) a third volume chronicling Girault’s adventures. While Earth Made of Glass proves to be a often-frustrating mixed-bag of good ideas and bad choices, it remains sufficiently interesting to please old fans and whip up anticipation for further books. This reviewer can’t wait to see Girault teach the finer points of courtisanship to representatives of alien civilisations…

A Million Open Doors, John Barnes

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? 🙂 ]