Thursday, February 28, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of John Barnes (and one novel, A Princess of the Aerie)

Today is John Barnes's birthday. I think he's one of the best pure SF writers of our time. In particular, The Sky So Big and Black is one of the best SF novels of this millennium -- and one of the scariest. Here's a selection of my reviews of his work in Locus, plus a review of his novel A Princess of the Aerie that appeared in the UK magazine 3SF.

Locus, November 2005

The November Analog features a novella by John Barnes, the latest in his Thousand Cultures series, which opened with a beautiful Analog novelette, “Canso de Fis de Jovent”. “The Diversification of His Fancy” reads like a bridge to a new novel. That said, it stands pretty well alone, though it may be a bit too long. Giraut Leones, the series’ hero, is now a celebrated musician (as well as a spy) – and he has also been a target of assassination attempts. His latest concert seems likely to be the venue for another attempt – and so we witness his “entourage” as they try to protect him. His entourage includes (among others) his ex-wife; his once dead friend; his father, who is now younger than him; and his lover. We learn little enough about the assassination plot (I presume that’s left for the novel?), but we learn a lot about the background of the Thousand Cultures, and especially about their somewhat imperfect immortality technology, which is based on recorded minds being downloaded into new bodies. (Hence the once dead friend and the younger father.) This story turns movingly on one of the central imperfections of this technology: not everyone can be saved and downloaded.

Locus, January 2006

The January-February Analog is also strong, indeed, one of the best issues in some time. There is good work in particular from Rajnar Vajra, Mark W. Tiedemann, and Richard A. Lovett, and an intriguing far future reverse take on today’s environmental controversies by Julian Flood, “Change”. But the best story is the longest: John Barnes’s “’The Night is Fine’, the Walrus Said”, a direct sequel to “The Diversification of its Fancy” (November 2005), and due to be followed by its own sequel in March. Indeed, it would appear that Barnes’s latest Thousand Cultures novel is perhaps being stealthily serialized in Analog, at least in part. I have no complaints! The stories work well enough on their own, though they are very clearly parts of a larger whole.  In this story Giraut Leones is again the subject of multiple assassination attempts as he tries to get his latest musical project finished. He seems to be the target of some faction of a group of illegal human colonies on distant planets. Things are further complicated when he begins to fall for a woman from his past – who seems to be connected to a representative of those colonies, and who is also a passionate Ixist. (The Ixist religion (introduced in an earlier book) being the subject of Giraut’s latest work.) The ending reveals some secrets, and sets the stage for much more to be revealed soon – involving AIs, aliens, the curious life-extension tech on this future, and of course the illegal colonies.

Locus, February 2006

John Barnes’s latest Thousand Cultures story continues in the March Analog with “The Little White Nerves Went Last”. A recording of Giraut Leones’s old boss Shan has been hosted in Giraut, and both are in the custody of rogue “aintellects”. Shan in particular had been a fierce opponent of AI rights, and this story consists mostly of his account of his childhood on a distant planet. The story reveals some important secrets of Barnes’s future – the source of his enabling “springer” (matter transmitter) technology, and the nature and motivations of a threatening alien civilization. This story is interesting and moving, if at times just a bit pat. The stage seems well and truly set for a pretty spectacular finish.

Locus, May 2006

I thought the best stories in the first issue of Baen's Universe were two longer novelettes. “Poga” by John Barnes, is a fantasy about a woman, Plain Old Goddamn Amy (or “Poga”), whose father was a struggling fantasy writer who suddenly made it big. In this world, Elfland is roughly Wyoming, and she lives in Colorado, near the border. She is struggling with a lonely life, and her dead father’s ambiguous legacy, and her uneasy relationship with the fantastical promise of Elfland.

Locus, November 2006

In October at Baen's Universe I thought two stories stood out – perhaps not quite what a reader of Baen Books would expect. ... Even better is John Barnes’s “Every Hole is Outlined”, set very far in the future, and essentially the life story of a girl sold from slavery into service on a starship. The small starship crew lives at a different rate, in essence, from planetbound people, and in a very different way as well. And there are mysteries – in particular the ghosts … Barnes’s heroine goes from a young girl more or less manipulated into marriage with an old man to the ship’s captain, and as we read of her life we learn fascinating snippets of the culture she inhabits. It’s quite a moving story, and it hints at a very interesting future.

Locus, February 2007

The new online magazine Helix offers a very good third issue. Among several strong stories I’ll mention particularly John Barnes’s “Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair” is a very mordantly funny send up of a Tom Swift-like series of books and more to the point the racist and fascist views expressed therein – which lead to the end of the world.

Locus, September 2007

The August Baen’s Universe includes another strong story from John Barnes, who had two of the best stories there last year. “An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away” is about a couple of documentary makers on Mars to record the impact of a comet as part of the terraforming effort. They have sort of a Red Mars/Green Mars conflict: Léoa’s point of view is to mourn the loss of the old Mars, while Thorby (a significant name in SF terms, but I admit I can’t figure out the reason for the nod to Citizen of the Galaxy) wants to celebrate the coming of a new Mars, and also wants to document Big Energy Release Events – that is to say, things blowing up. The story turns, however, on their more personal characters – Thorby’s lonely life, Léoa’s ambition – as plotwise it pivots on an accident on the surface of Mars.

Locus, January 2010

However, they (Jim Baen's Universe) do close 2009 with perhaps the best story they’ve published yet, and one of the great stories of the year: John Barnes’s “Things Undone”. Rastigevat is a highborn member of a rather darkly formed society. His partner is of lower class, but we learn quickly that they are in love, for which the lower born individual is liable to be executed. Their job is curious – they track down time travelers and try to minimize the damage they can cause. The story turns on several things – the feelings of the main characters (Rastigevat in particular, as he seems to be borderline autistic), eventual revelations about the true nature of this world – an alternate history – and why it’s different to our world, the rather subtle delineation of the extent of the differences (accompanied by some of the typical alternate history namedropping, but here employed to much better effect than usual), and of course a conspiracy … In the end it’s very moving, very involving – I was reminded of one of my favorite time travel stories of all time, John Brunner’s “The Fullness of Time”.

Locus, March 2011

Jonathan Strahan serves notice that 2011 may be as strong a year as the past few in original anthologies with Engineering Infinity. ... John Barnes closes the book with “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees”. Stephanie and her husband Lars are part of an expedition to the Southern Ocean to investigate a curious feature: a mat of huge upside down “trees”. The nature of the trees and the reason for them is pretty neat, in an SFnal way. The story also has a fine character-based conflict, as Lars’s ex-wife, a humaniform android built for space exploration is also along on the trip; and Stephanie is fiercely jealous of her, a jealousy only complicated by her being as nice as she is physically and mentally superior. Fine work from a first-rate but I feel underrated writer.

Life on Mars Review (Locus, May 2011)

Finally the best two stories come from Ian McDonald and John Barnes. ...Barnes’s “Martian Heart” posits a condition that affects a significant subset of Martian colonists, whereby their heart fails due to the conditions on the planet. The “colonists” here are essentially indentured. For example, the narrator, Cap, and his wife Sam are homeless people on Earth, shipped to Mars in lieu of time in the army, hoping to earn their way back to Earth by prospecting. But the odds of a prospector hitting it big are minuscule – so they’re likely stuck on Mars. And things get worse when Sam’s heart begins to fail. The story is in a sense about how Cap – who is telling it decades later – finally hits it big – and why Sam is the reason he did. Sentimental stuff, I suppose, but in the best way, and it hit me right in the gut.

Locus, December 2012

Strahan also gives us a new anthology of stories set in the relatively near future Solar System, Edge of Infinity, which has a plethora of neat pieces. ... John Barnes's “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh”, about an AI who gets involved (it's his job) with the relationship issues of a man and a woman – which ends up impacting the relationship of humans and  AIs quite profoundly.

Review of A Princess of the Aerie for 3SF, April 2003

Last year I was quite taken with John Barnes's novel The Duke of Uranium, a romp set in a well-inhabited 36th Century Solar System over That novel introduced Jak Jinnaka, a charismatic young man who, it is hinted, will achieve great (and perhaps sinister) power later in his life. Barnes seemed to deliberately sprinkle that book with references to Heinlein, and in many ways it read like a present-day Heinlein juvenile. But Barnes evidently has different things in mind, and the sequel, A Princess of the Aerie, is certainly not a Young Adult book. It is, however, an interesting and very enjoyable read, set in a politically and technologically fascinating future.

Jak's former girlfriend, Shyf, was revealed in the first book to be a princess of a nation in the Aerie, a cluster of space habitats located at the Earth-Sun L4 point. Jak lives in the Hive, at the L5 point, and he's studying at the Public Service Academy, with his friend Dujuv, a young man with panther-derived genes. Jak is looking for a class project, and at the same time he gets a message from Shyf, asking him for help and hinting at a resumption of their relationship. So Jak, Dujuv, and Dujuv's ex-girlfriend Myxenna, head for the Aerie. Once there, however, they find that Shyf claims not to have sent any such message. They also learn that Shyf is not the person they thought she was, instead she is a sex-mad, power-mad, spoiled brat. But Jak and his friends, partly because of what seems to be unusual luck on Jak's part, foil an attempt on the Princess's father's life. As a reward, they are sent to the hellish mines of Mercury, where they get involved with a revolution against a group angling to take control of Mercury's resources.

The story is exciting in itself, and furthermore it is fascinating in its cynical view of realpolitik as it applies to the 36th Century. Our view of Jak is complicated enormously in this second of his adventures: it's clear that he's not quite what he seems, but it's also clear that his friends (and former friends) don't understand him well either. I'm looking forward to further stories detailing the career of Jak Jinnaka -- and I do want to see what he makes of his life and times.

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