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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Spotlight on William Barton - Dark, Explicit 90's SF Ahead of Its Time (by Liviu Suciu)

William Barton at Wikipedia
Read Novella The Man Who Counts (archived from Sci-fi fiction)

INTRODUCTION: In the early 90's I discovered Dark Sky Legion by William Barton which was quite different from the sf of the time - modern in sensibilities, but dark and quite explicit - and I have become a big fan of the author, tracking down and reading all his novels as well as most of the short fiction. I read almost all the author's novels starting with When Heaven Fell on publication and same with most of his short fiction from then on, while I reread some of the novels and novellas quite a few times since.

Some of his novels are outstanding sf that imho were ahead of the time since in the 90's the idea of explicitness and dark themes were not that popular at least here in the US, neither in fantasy nor in sf. Today the success of authors like Peter Hamilton made sf readers more comfortable with explicitness, while dark themes are the order of the day so to speak in much sff, so much so that there has recently been a cry to return to "optimism" and "positivity".

Using the Wikipedia link above and the summaries of the novels therein, I will present a short take of mine on each as well as some discussion of the newer stories from the author. I also strongly recommend readers to try the online novella The Man Who Counts - originally published on Sci-Fi and now archived on the Net - since for once it is just brilliant and for another it offers a perfect sample of Mr. Barton's themes and style so you may get hooked and want to track down his earlier novels also.

  • Hunting on Kunderer; August 1973 On a jungle world populated by dinosaur-like predators, a group of hunters must deal with deadly beasts, sabotage, and an alien studying human sexuality.
- One of the last novels I read from the author since it took the appearance of Amazon and their superb stock of used books, to track it down, this is a debut novel that is pulp-like but presaging the themes of the 90's novels; a very good debut and a short but satisfactory read (A-).

  • A Plague of All Cowards; August 1976 Zoltan Tharkie, a professional space pirate, is hired by the government of human civilization to track down an assassin.
- Same comment as above regarding when I got hold of A Plague of All Cowards which was weaker in many ways than Hunting on Kunderer since it reads like the start of a series and leaves a lot of loose ends; the weakest novel by the author alone, though entertaining enough and with great promise (B).

  • Iris; with Michael Capobianco, February 1990 A wandering and its moons hold awesome alien secrets for a group of dissatisfied colonists.
First in a series of four collaborations with M. Capobianco, Iris presents a pattern followed in the rest of the collaborations - a group of pretty unlikable but interesting characters on a space mission; this one features explicit gay sex among other such stuff which I think was quite rare for a *genre sf* novel of 1990 and the bickering and tension in the group is as important as the mysteries they encounter; a strong A and a powerful novel that mixes hard-sf and character study quite well.

  • Fellow Traveler; with Michael Capobianco, July 1991,The United States and the USSR squabble over the dangers and rewards of asteroid mining during the Cold War.
The only novel by the author that I did not get into and fast read it only; I could not suspend disbelief since real life events overtook its subject and it would have been better for this novel to be shelved and not published or rewritten completely to take into account the new realities or present the story as an alt-Earth one. This way the novel was badly dated before publication.

  • Dark Sky Legion; August 1992 An eternally young, millennia-old man in a far-future star empire is faced with difficult decisions about whether or not to destroy a planet in order to preserve the status quo.
This is space opera with a twist; the far-flung Metastatic human empire is held together by enforcers with absolute powers - called Televox - who are sent digitally at light speed and incarnated on arrival to troubleshoot problems and generally keep the status-quo; the Televox come from clone lines and their entire "family" can be punished or even culled as unfit for failure.

Maaron Denthurian is one such Televox who arrives in the sector containing the planet Olam and discovers some discrepancies on a routine inspection. Since he has authority and power to nuke the planet if offenses against the Metastatic empire warrant it, he is treated like a "god" by the locals who seemingly enjoy an Utopian life; however darker stuff lurks beyond the surface and Maaron will have to answer the ultimate question: where does his loyalty lie? Just awesome "new space opera" published when the term was barely used and an A++.

  • Yellow Matter; December 1993, no ISBN Signed and numbered chapbook published by TAL Publications, Leesburg, VA. A man sexually harassed by an alien creature eventually comes to prefer being treated as a sex object for this species.
A short chapbook which contains inter-species sex and is darker than even the rest of Mr. Barton's work; very short novella but superb if you are not squeamish (A).

  • When Heaven Fell; March 1995, A human mercenary for powerful alien conquerors returns to an enslaved Earth while on leave, finding a people both apathetic and desperate.
Another awesome novel from the author; an enigmatic galactic empire seemingly led by AI's called the Master Race discovers Earth and sends mercenary reptilian units to subdue it; after a heroic defense in which billions of humans die but 600,000 of the powerful alien warriors perish too, marking the humans as high-potential soldiers for the Masters - the reptilian warriors who are all female are on the cover too - Earth is technologically devolved and reduced to status of pleasure planet and mercenary recruiting ground.

A young boy at the time of the invasion, Athol Morrison joins the masters war academy and rises through the ranks to powerful commands in the masters service enjoying the perks that come with service like human pleasure "servants" and such; on a return leave to Earth some twenty years later, he wants to find his school sweetheart who did not make it through the academy entrance exams, while visiting his family which is not that happy to see him, especially that his brother resents the masters more and more.

This is a more realistic description of the consequences of an alien-invasion by a superior power than usually done in sf and is *the* novel for such imho. An A++ .

I also want to note that the theme of incomprehensible and powerful aliens that subdue humanity appears also in the cycle that contains the novel When We Were Real and several short stories including the masterpiece novella Engine of Desire.

  • The Transmigration of Souls; January 1996, A portal on the moon leads a team of international scientists—and the American soldiers sent to stop them—to alternate realities.
This is the most sense-of-wonder of the author's novels with a future Amerika that suddenly closes its borders, isolates itself from the rest of Earth and creates seemingly invincible soldiers who are used only to ensure all space activities cease; of course a multi-national Asian-European space crew escapes and discovers the reason for the Americans' seemingly irrational acts, while possibly ensuring the destruction not only of Earth but of Reality itself; a novel of alternate realities, The Transmigration of Souls is excellent if you like the solipsistic "poof, I can change the whole universe with an action and only I/my friends know it" and I tend to dislike that trope despite its appearance in favored novels like the last Kushiel novel (trope done by magic), The Golden Age or Geosynchron (trope done by manipulation of the nervous system). Still the trademark style of the author made it a strong A for me.

  • Acts of Conscience; January 1997, specialist mechanic acquires an FTL spaceship, discovers ominous signs on a colony world, and plays a part in the decision of whether or not to wipe out humanity for the sake of other species.
The third awesome novel of William Barton and another one that besides regular explicit sex, features inter-species one too. A young mechanic leading a limited and pointless life - work, booze, work, girls, work, booze - on a company controlled space station wins the lottery; not exactly, but the equivalent when a small tech company he has a bunch of shares in discovers something big and he holds on for a large enough buyout to get his own ftl spaceship; after some pointless voyages with his former co-workers, he goes on his own - only with the Guild approved pilot actually - to explore the known worlds and finds something quite unexpected (and dark of course) that may leave him influencing a crucial decision about the continual existence of humanity. A++ and the novel I would start the work of the author with since it is the most accesible and exuberant in some ways, despite its dark undercurrents.

  • Alpha Centauri; with Michael Capobianco, July 1997, A terrorist plague endangers an exploration ship; the leavings of ancient aliens suggest it might not matter whether they save themselves or not.
For some reasons I read this just after White Light and since as mentioned above it follows the same pattern as Iris and White Light - crew of interesting but dysfunctional people on a space mission - I liked it the least of the three. Has some original ideas about exploring the past through the "magic" of science and of course the style of the author kept me engrossed, but I think it is the weakest of the three space collaborations (A-).

  • White Light; with Michael Capobianco; October 1998,Two families travel to the heart of the universe and find a Tipleresque heaven.
The best of the 3 space collaborations and an A+, this is also the most metaphysical of the author's novels alongside The Transmigration of Souls. I also liked the character set the most here, though they are still not particularly likable, but their dynamic is probably the least dysfunctional in the three novels.

  • When We Were Real; June 1999, Darius Murphy escapes an oppressive religious matriarchy to find love and war in the darkness between the stars.
Part of a cycle including Engine of Desire (Asimovs, 08/02) and I think both Heart of Glass (Asimovs 01/00) and Soldier's Home (Asimovs, 05/99) in which humans create hybrids of humans and animals to exploit as work or pleasure slaves - called optimods - as well as weird cyborgs and more generally utilitarian machines that can couple and have children.

Darius Murphy of the summary above and Violet a purple furred human-fox optimod space pilot find love and war across space and time. While the novel is excellent, it has a bit of an incompleteness feeling since major events are alluded to and I think it was planned as a start of a series that did not continue except in short stories. Still a worthy read and a standalone in itself, but I would not start reading William Barton here. An A+ from me.

Selected Short Stories

Engine of Desire (Asimovs Aug 02)

Set in the far future of When We Were Real and featuring optimod pilot Crystal and sentient ship Tammuz as well as memorable sentient welding machine Mr. Pommesfrites and many references to the warring super aliens the Spinefellows - in whose domain humanity has found itself, "discovered" by another client race the Firefoxes- and their deadly enemies, the Starfish and of the special role humanity played in their Galaxy devastating conflict. Quite a few other alien civilization appear and the novella is just amazing and showcases Mr. Barton at his best.


Off on A Starship (Asimovs, Sept 2003)

And now for a change, sf as the typical adolescent male wish-fulfillment; literally this time since the narrator is a geeky, troubled 1960's teen with a passion for sf who on one night encounters a starship that whisks him away; of course this being a William Barton novella, it features the explicit sex that the usual representatives of the sub-genre avoided even to mention and it has several twists and turns and a darker subtext, though it is probably the most optimistic of the author's fiction.


The Man Who Counts (Sci-Fi, 2003)

A Mars prison for the worst Solar System criminals with a twist; most of the inmates are reborn as "pleasure" slaves for the rich and powerful, hormonally conditioned to do all in their power to sexually please first and foremost. Some are chemically castrated and used as un-sexed sort of caretakers; the narrator and title character, now known as Merry, whose dark past as a famous war hero and serial killer is slowly revealed is one the latter and when he meets the newest inmate Sparrow whom he thinks he knows from before, he sort of falls in love, castrated or not, and plans to escape with her. Of course there is much more going on than meets the eye. Here is their first meeting, though as mentioned you can read the story at the link provided.

"Utterly bewildered look on her face, eyes deeply puzzled, as if she had no idea where she was, or why she was here. Knowing why and where made it easy for me. That and knowing I deserved every bit of it. "


Overall, William Barton created an amazing body of sf novels in the 90's and I strongly recommend them, hoping they get the recognition they richly deserve since today I think their style and content is much more in tune with the times than it was on their original publication, when sff was still sanitized to a large extent.


Ian Sales said...

I've been a fan of Barton's fiction for many years. It's about time someone published a collection of his stories and novellas.

Liviu said...

I agree 100% and I would love to see his novels back in print too. They are generally easy to find them used on Amazon and the like but it would be nice if there would be some reissues

odo said...

Great post! Haven't heard of William Barton before, but now I'm really intrigued. Which novel would you recommend to start with? I love Space Opera (Peter Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds) and hard SF (Egan).

Liviu said...

thank you for the kind words; I would recommend to start with Acts of Conscience or When Heaven Fell, though Dark Sky Legion will do too; all are standalone and complete

Anonymous said...

"When Heaven Fell" cries out for a sequel; it has one of the most dramatic cliff-hanging endings I know, but I've seen nothing to suggest Barton will ever tell the rest of the story.

Liviu said...

I thought that Heaven Fell actually had a good ending - the rebellion is finally starting! Very in tone with the rest of the novel imho.

The book that truly cries out for a sequel (or better put the universe that I really would love to see much more in) is When We Were Real; The Engine of desire was excellent but I would have loved more, more...

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