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Barnes, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1957-    ) US author, married to fantasy author Kara Dalkey (1953-    ) from 1993 to 2001, who began publishing sf with "Manuel's Tears", for CoEvolution Quarterly in 1982, a tale which comprised a middle chapter of his successful first novel, The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky (1987), an effective drama involving highly coloured political conflicts throughout the solar system after World War Three has devastated the home planet. His second, Sin of Origin (1988), rather more ambitiously attempts to combine Space Opera, Religion and Sociology in a tale set on a planet (which humans call Randall) whose species enjoyed an extremely complex tripartite form of symbiosis before the arrival of two human sects – Christians and Communists – who variously, and fatally, come to "understand" what is happening. As the tripartite symbiosis breaks down, the surviving singles begin to replicate human forms of behaviour – Slavery becomes rife – and the novel continues to darken. The final conclusion is that DNA, found in all sentient species, reproduces by causing its bearers to destroy themselves and their planets violently in terminal Holocaust, in order that DNA spores may be blown to new stars. Barnes's third novel, the Young Adult Orbital Resonance (1991), told with markedly more panache and vigour than his first two tales, rather implausibly argues that adult humans might well decide that their children are better equipped than they are to handle the challenges of the new in space. The young female protagonist evinces clear similarities to the heroine of Robert A Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars (1963).

A Million Open Doors (1992), which begins the Thousand Cultures sequence, also hearkens deliberately backwards to the exuberant, human-dominated, outward-looking galaxy of writers like Heinlein, though the story itself – a young man comes of age on a strange planet as the human galaxy reunites, thanks to the invention of the "springer" Matter Transmitter – is perhaps more shadowed by self-awareness than some of its predecessors, and successive volumes increasingly darken the picture. The covert galaxy-spanning Office of Special Projects, more complexly envisioned than its generic predecessors in the work of writers like Poul Anderson or Keith Laumer, takes its task of controlling the explosive reunion of humans throughout the galaxy very seriously indeed, with the result that, in Earth Made of Glass (1988), an entire planet is effectively destroyed. The Merchant of Souls (2001), in which the continuing protagonist endures a fluctuating relationship with the recorded personality embedded in his brain (see Identity Transfer), is more intimate. The sequence continues with The Armies of Memory (2006) and a final volume has been projected.

A simultaneous series, The Century Next Door, comprises four loosely connected tales – Orbital Resonance (1991), Kaleidoscope Century (1995) and Candle (1999), all three assembled as The Century Next Door (omni 2000), plus The Sky So Big and Black (2002) – which created a recomplicated pattern of Future History through intersections of Time-Travel wipings and rewipings of narrative strands, and the threatening universal ascendance of the Meme One True, which is a kind of combination of hegemonic software and Hive Mind. These intersections are focused through various takes on the War of the Memes, the outcome of which will determine the shape of humanity, perhaps for good. But The Sky So Big and Black – which is set in an Alternate History version of a future Mars – depicts a culture as complex as that unfolded in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1992) and its sequels, so that perhaps something of the entropic desolation that underlies much of Barnes's ethical and social speculations here seems more conditional.

Over and above two comparatively routine sequences – for Timeline Wars and Jak Jinnaka titles, see Checklist below – Barnes has also published some singletons. In Mother of Storms (1994), which is his most impressive early novel, he creates a powerful and complex portrait of a Near Future world wracked by the eponymous self-fuelling storm (see Climate Change), and on the verge of numerous cusps, ethical and practical. Through Virtual Reality, Sex has become extraordinarily present in everyone's consciousness, and Genetic Engineering helps point the way to the stars. Meanwhile the storm continues, in a narrative which makes profitable use of both the bestseller disaster mode and of Cyberpunk. Apostrophes and Apocalypses (coll 1998; vt Apocalypses and Apostrophes 2000) assembles short stories, most of them early, and some nonfiction. Gaudeamus (2004) plays – lightly for him – with meta-fictional tropes, introducing a John Barnes as protagonist, and skidding through some imaginative physics. The Daybreak sequence beginning with Directive 51 (2010) us a Near Future Technothriller series in which an anti-corporate-power group of terrorists threaten to bring down civilization. Barnes has become a virtuoso manipulator of sf themes; and the nature of his next book is impossible to predict from the shape of its predecessor. [JC]

see also: Internet; Memory Edit.

John Allen Barnes

born Angola, Indiana: 28 February 1957



The Century Next Door

Thousand Cultures

Time Raider

Timeline Wars

Jak Jinnaka


individual titles

collections and stories



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