Sunday, September 29, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of William Barton

This is a slightly belated birthday review, for William Barton, who turned 69 a day ago. He wrote some truly exceptional SF in the first decade of the 21st century (and some before that, to be sure), but alas, he seems to have fallen silent about 10 years ago. I particularly recommend the first story here, "The Engine of Desire", a tremendous novella.

Locus, August 2002

I have made it no secret that my favorite SF story of 2001 was Ian R. MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation", which is to some extent about the loss of the 20th Century's Sfnal dream of the future.  Now I find that one of my favorite stories so far in 2002 is also, to me at least, something of a sad farewell to the yearnings of 20th Century SF, though in the case of William Barton's "The Engine of Desire", a novella from the August Asimov's, these yearnings have to some great extent been achieved, but not in the way John Campbell showed us.

This story is set many centuries in the future of Barton's 2000 Asimov's story "Heart of Glass", and features the same narrator, an "optimod": a bio-engineered human/animal mix.  The wonders it features include AI, FTL travel, Galactic empires, colorful aliens, robots, etc. But we are shown these in the aftermath of a couple of utterly disastrous wars, in which humans were used as cannon fodder by advanced alien.  The ruins of the Galaxy are tenuously at peace, but much has been lost, by many different species swept into the war.  The narrator is now a scavenger of abandoned technology.  As the story opens he rescues an intelligent, human-designed, robot, delightfully named Mr. Pommesfrites, then makes his way to another planet, vaguely hoping to find some trace of the AI who once ran his starship.  On this planet we see more of the devastation left by the war, as well as a sardonic look at the continuing destructive habits of intelligent beings.  The narrator encounters another human-derived refugee, observes the residents of this planet at their games, and drifts on.  In a way not much happens, but the story is still strikingly effective.  It is told in voice suffused with regret, with loss, with sad remembrance.  It shows us a future stuffed with potential but devoted entirely to war and devastation, one in which humans are wholly insignificant pawns. It's an achingly moving story.

Locus, June 2003

In the context of arguments about "fun" and "adventure" in contemporary SF, William Barton's novella "The Man Who Counts" (Sci Fiction, May 28) is particularly interesting. The story is on the one hand a lush recreation of the purest of old-fashioned SFnal dreams. It's set in a future in which Mars and Venus have been lushly terraformed, and in which worlds of other stars have been colonized as well. The very title is taken from the first of Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories. The action involves the heroic escape of prisoners from a Martian penal colony, and their attempt to uncover a political scandal. But all this heroism is undercut -- the narrator is a serial rapist and killer who continues to kill innocents. The lead female character prostitutes herself repeatedly to "pay" for their escape. The future penology is grotesque -- the death penalty has been abolished, but criminals are mindwiped, and reprogrammed to be "studs" or "snatches" -- compelled to be always ready for sex. Alternately they might be castrated. I can't say I was thrilled or uplifted by this story, or exactly cheering for the heroes (though they are ultimately on the side of good), but I was kept reading, always interested, usually horrified. This is full of action, full of colorful SF ideas, but it can hardly be called fun. Much contemporary SF reflects on Golden Age SF, often rather cynically -- that may be one aspect that turns off some readers, but it's necessary for writers to stay honest.

Locus, September 2003

William Barton's last couple of stories ("The Engine of Desire" and "The Man Who Counts") have seemed to me to carry a strong subtextual element combining nostalgia for the lost dreams of old SF with a certain critique of those dreams. His new story, the long novella "Off On a Starship", from the September Asimov's, makes this explicit -- no need to go subtext-mining here! An SF-loving 16 year old stumbles into a flying saucer and finds himself whisked to Titan and then points beyond. He struggles to survive amid overtly science-fictional environments that remind him of stories by Burroughs and Niven and Norton and almost any other writer a boy in 1966 might have encountered. With the help of a friendly robot he finally makes some sense of his fate, and comes to a decision about his future -- and the Earth's. On the one hand the story sharply exposes regrets about our failure to achieve such classic SFnal dreams as journeys to Mars, but on the other hand slyly asks just how "adult", as it were, some of these dreams are.

Locus, September 2004

William Barton's "The Gods of a Lesser Creation" is another of his stories about "optimods" (genetically engineered human/animal hybrids) and androids (or gyndroids). The most fundamental issue raised, of course, is slavery. In this case the narrator is mostly dog. His job is to serve and guard his owner, Dr. Allie Battenberg. In the course of the story we see various other sorts of ownership, represented by Battenberg's using of a naïve young woman, by her pilot's use of a robot sex toy, by the exploitation of the local "Social Discards". It's a thoughtful and subtle story by a consistently underrated and challenging writer.

Locus, September 2006

Double issues of Asimov’s are usually especially strong. For one thing, they tend to feature novellas, and indeed the October/November issue has two, both good. William Barton’s “Down to the Earth Below” invokes mostly Edgar Rice Burroughs, with nods to Heinlein’s Glory Road. Alan Burke, nearly 14, and his three friends fall into an abandoned mine while playing games set in a Burroughsian world they have invented. There is no way out but through, as it were: through to a strange land where they meet a beautiful woman and fierce warriors, and undertake a quest. In a way the story is about growing up: certainly Alan is on the cusp of puberty, as represented by the woman he meets changing from the “Untouchable” to the “Beloved”. This is explicitly an adolescent fantasy, but the rather touching resolution isn’t quite as expected, and can be read in multiple ways. Barton has given us a recent set of slightly uneasy paeans to the lost worlds of SF and Fantasy: the dreams of fabulous futures and colorful realms that we mostly abandon as we age (and that even as dreams we have to some extent abandoned in recent decades: there is no possible Barsoom, nor really a Foundation).

Locus, September 2008

William Barton, with “In the Age of the Quiet Sun” (Asimov's, September), extrapolates to a future beloved of SF readers, as asteroid miners (slaves to shady corporations) stumble on a fantastic find, an alien spacecraft. I don't think it really convinces, but in a way it's not meant too – the attitude is ever knowing – this isn't where we are going, but a version of where we wanted to go.

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