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Barton, William R

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US author who has concentrated for most of his career on sf novels set in Space Opera arenas; within this normally expansive frame, he tends to focus on intimate venues, where stressful interactions amongst sometimes dysfunctional characters give a dark, closet-drama feel to his tales. His first novel, however, Hunting on Kunderer (1973), traditionally confronts humans with Alien natives on a dangerous new planet; A Plague of All Cowards (1976 dos) was also an sf adventure. Of much greater interest was Iris (1990) with Michael Capobianco, in which a group of artists, en route to Triton, encounters the eponymous Gas Giant, which has drifted, with moons, into the solar system. Alien artefacts are found and epiphanies are experienced; but the novel is primarily striking for the intense directness of the prose and for the capacity of the authors to address in that prose both matters of science (which might be expected in a Hard-SF novel) and matters of character, for the cast is deeply memorable. Fellow Traveler, Sputnik Mira (1991), also with Capobianco, is perhaps more straightforward, but again shows a remarkable grasp of the human shape of experience, in this case a Near-Future Soviet attempt to harness an Asteroid for industrial purposes. The authors were clearly unfortunate in writing their tale before the collapse of the USSR, but it remains the case that – given the continuing malaise of the US space programme – this novel does successfully make one feel that there have been losses as well as gains in the end of the Cold War.

Dark Sky Legion: An Ahrimanic Novel (1992) may be the clearest demonstration at full length of Barton's sense of almost crippling fatality: while being an ambitious, galaxy-spanning, metaphysical, highly readable Space Opera, it makes at the same time some engrossing speculations about life in a universe in which Faster-than-Light travel is impossible, suggesting that a highly likely outcome would be a conservative, fanatically over-controlling human hegemony which (because time changes all unless blocked) ruthlessly brakes any tendency of isolated colonies to vary too far from the declared norm. There are echoes of Wolfbane (October-November Galaxy; 1959) by C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, though Barton is both more savage and more moody. At points this savagery of pessimism is difficult to absorb, as in Yellow Matter (1993 chap), a fable of Exogamy and humiliation. Later novels continue the pattern. In When Heaven Fell (1995), a mercenary who significantly does not have his hands on the reins of power, returns to an enslaved Earth; and When We Were Real (1999) similarly depicts the lives of grunts employed by an armed, galaxy-spanning, totally ruthless corporation: in neither of these books are we treated to the illusion that individuals can change worlds. Of his later novels with Capobianco, White Light (1998) interestingly climaxes the interstellar hegira of two conflicted families at a kind of Virtual Reality cum Godhead at the end of the galaxy which seems based on the Omega Point theories popularized by Frank Tipler (1947-    ). There is no baroque excess or exuberance in Barton's Space Operas; but there is a taste of mortality, which is inherently bracing. [JC]

William Renald Barton III

born Boston, Massachusetts: 28 September 1950



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