A Million Open Doors (Orion Millennium, £4.99, 314 pages, paperback; first published 1992, this edition 1994) and Earth Made of Glass (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 416 pages, paperback; published 1999) both by John Barnes
In these two connected novels, which seem certain to have sequels, John Barnes commences a creditable long-term foray into serious political SF. In his customary breezy but disturbing manner, alternating between the naturalistic, the satirical, and the apocalyptic, he commandeers the materials of space opera and anthropological SF and makes of them an allegory of contemporary globalization. Barnes insists that his protagonists and worlds grow up just as our world is growing up; and, tellingly, this is a slide from exhilaration into trauma.
The setting is well constructed: a future that is both a staple of genre and representative of the present. In the centuries following the Twentieth, cataclysmic World Wars and a Slaughter depopulate whole regions of the Earth; but humanity survives to colonize the stars. Ponderous Slower-Than-Light vessels carry human cargoes to a variety of sometimes uncomfortable terraformed planets, where the Thousand Cultures come into being, often conservative and insular, and free to develop along their own idiosyncratic paths for centuries. When all the suitable nearby solar systems have been thus settled, the human race as a whole undergoes an Inward Turn, a relaxation into routine; after all, resources and living space are now plentiful, and space travel is too protracted to be rewarding. But an American SF writer will never tolerate torpor for long; decades before the opening of A Million Open Doors, the springer - a form of instantaneous interstellar travel - ushers in a Renaissance. The opportunities and difficulties begin there.
In effect, a new and much larger version of late Twentieth Century globalization begins. Dozens of long-isolated colony planets can now be brought into the cosmopolitan cultural and economic mainstream; in fact they must, because a possible alien threat demands human unity. The Council of Humanity Connects the Cultures together via the springer; a million doors are indeed opened. But Barnes is concerned with the pain of this transaction as much as with its exuberance; his fictional studies of the transitions undergone by four Cultures are articulate, balanced, and ironic analyses of social disorientation, economic disruption, and political desperation. The Cultures are in effect the nations of the Second and Third Worlds, exposed to the searing heat of the global day.
The elements of globalization are thus very vividly in play in these books. Once Connect occurs, goods from the wider market flood a Cultureís formerly insulated economy; years of Depression ensue, bringing business closures and unemployment. Local cultural forms, usually inbred and over-specialized, are overwhelmed by imported product. The fragile multiplicity of the STL era succumbs to the bustling uniformity of the Interstellar metaculture. Stable political regimes buckle as their comfortable compromises are undermined. And this general destabilization extends to countless individuals as well. Typically, a person whose identity has been shaped by a rigid isolationist template must adapt to shocking novelty, become someone else, inhabit a new and different life story. Giraut Leonesí first person narratives relate his own dizzying transformations; and through his eyes Barnes synchronously portrays the sometimes successful, sometimes disastrous attempts of his characters and cultures to ride the waves of change.
All four societies featured in these two novels are especially complicated and delicate by virtue of their artificiality. They are not simply ethnic groupings transplanted whole to other planets in the manner of Poul Anderson, or eccentric exotic growths after Jack Vance. Rather, they are literary creations, written or programmed by their now-dead founders to act out fantastic pseudo-historical idylls. In A Million Open Doors, Girautís milieu of Nou Occitan is a recreation of mediaeval Aquitaine as it never was: a place dominated by romantic troubadours and duelling bravoes, where all the women who count are beautiful and honour is the highest currency. Already after a few years of Connect, this heady but impractical establishment is foundering; in an extreme microcosm of its disintegration, Giraut, a typically grandiloquent minstrel, flees amorous disappointment by joining a Council embassy to another newly-contacted Culture, Caledony on the nearby world of Nansen. Giraut must immediately begin readjusting his values in this alien environment, especially as the Caledons are also in the throes of change.
Barnes is at his most ironic in his depiction of Caledony. It is a utopia after the dreams of Nineteenth Century British Utilitarians, a resolutely gloomy home of Reason and rational economic practice. Everyone must work hard; profit and its concomitants of pride and status are the only acknowledged incentives to excellence; this is the Will of God, and any dissent, such as the love of fun, is severely discouraged. Giraut and his fellow diplomats are not spared the duty of daily toil for the public good. Amidst this satire, Barnes makes a very logical connection between his churchgoing Rational Capitalists and the dystopian obduracy of Communism: as Caledony is Connected, its fundamentalist stiffnecks fight back repressively, very much in the manner of Ceaucescu in 1989 or the gray Soviet cabal of August 1991, declaring an emergency, unleashing the security police. But they must fail; the would-be utopian bubble bursts. Many have died, and a unique society with them. Even though many are liberated, the tragic necessity of globalization has been very effectively underlined.
A participant in external revolution, Giraut has undergone an internal one. He has experienced an alternative culture; he can now see how decoratively contrived and silly Nou Occitan is, a hothouse growth; in a repudiation of its traditions, he marries Margaret, a very plain and uncoquettish Caledon woman. They are swiftly recruited by the Council of Humanityís secret intelligence arm, the Office for Special Projects. In Earth Made of Glass, they are a good deal older, and a deeper disillusionment has set in. They and their marriage are now products of a secular Interstellar civilization, whose prescriptions they, as OSP agents, are charged to enforce. Throughout Earth, the sense grows in Girautís mind that all culture is merely empty ritual, the bored billions of a postmodern post-economic age desperately casting about for things to do. He and Margaret are assigned to the harsh high-gravity planet Briand, where two further literary Cultures are in conflict: one of deeply chauvinistic Tamils devoted to a canon of archaic poetry, and another of Mayas living as Western anthropologists believe they might have in their heyday. Superficially, they are like Irish Catholics and Protestants or any other rival nationalities: surely a reasonable peace can be negotiated? But for them to accept Connection, to accept each other, would be to sacrifice the artificial veneer of culture that Giraut has already recognized as humanityís sole safeguard against utter aimless tedium...
A Million Open Doors reflects the enthusiasm of a young man engaged in discovery, which offsets its inherent pessimism; Earth Made of Glass is far more dispiriting, the tale of a tired aging man confronting personal and political futility. Although hope often beckons on Briand, it is a mirage, whose evaporation leaves despair behind: is any reconciliation possible, between millions of bigots or between the partners in a troubled marriage like Girautís? The answer is not an absolute no; failure on one level may be redeemed by progress on the other. But in its relentless portrayal of desperate intrigue in claustrophobic embassy rooms, its evocation of an unlivable environment of exaggerated weight and glaring sunlight, its sense that fanaticism may be unanswerable, Earth is an accurate representation of the discouraging ennui that the present of overpopulation, overexploitation, and merciless globalization can induce, relief from which is illusory or temporary. Perhaps the sequel will offer more cheer; more likely not.
These two books are, then, an uncompromising account of the individual and the world maturing; they are surprisingly honest in this. Surprisingly, because what might have been routine adventure stories, full of exoticism and self-aggrandizing interstellar troubleshooting for their own sake, are instead made into texts of increasingly grim realism. Action is forsaken in favour of long, probing, at times intellectually feverish dialogue; doubt is everywhere, all certainties are qualified, the possibility of heroism - the essence of space opera - is rather lugubriously interrogated. This makes these ambitious, serious, meaningful books; but it also makes them frequently static and laborious, unpleasant (if necessary) medicine. This quality is compounded by Barnesí unfortunate tin ear for language, which can make prose humdrum where it should be urgent. Accomplished satire and well argued realism are strongly present in A Million Open Doors and Earth Made of Glass, but they are on the whole disconsolate reading.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 28 August 1999