Wednesday, 11 October 2000

John Barnes: A Million Open Doors (1992)

Edition: Weidenfeld Military, 1993
Review number: 651

Each of John Barnes' novels to date has been different, each an excellent piece of science fiction. A Million Open Doors is based on a scenario similar to some of the ideas behind the Dorsai trilogy - the bringing together once more of the splintered subcultures into which the human race has developed after isolation on colony planets separated by interstellar space - while in tone it is reminiscent of the classic novels of Isaac Asimov (particularly Foundation) and Poul Anderson. It has rather more to say about culture shock than any of these novels, and contains interesting ideas I have never seen before, in over twenty years of avid science fiction reading.

As humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, the insularity of the various colonised planets has been increased by the use of invented cultures, exaggerations of Earthly ones. Now, however, the invention of an instant transportation method - which sets up the million open doors of the title - has ended their isolation. This is the background to the story of Giraut, an enthusiastic member of a culture based around the ideals of the medieval troubadours, a culture of art and literature, duelling and macho personal honour. The establishment of a gateway on the planet of Nou Occitan has led to the crumbling of this culture, as young people turn to the newly fashionable Interstellars who have abandoned Occitan ways for their idea of a pan-human lifestyle. (Occitan is another name for the Provencal language of the south of France in the middle ages.) When he discovers that his entendedora (a mixture between a teenage girlfriend and the object of a troubadour's affections) has been going to Interstellar sex clubs, he is in despair, and takes up an invitation to travel to Caledon as part of an ambassadorial team to help them deal with the imminent opening of a gateway on their planet.

Caledon is an almost complete contrast to Nou Occitan. It is a puritan culture on an Arctic world - one where terraforming was only partly carried out because suffering is good for the soul. The arts are dismissed as irrational, and the flamboyant Occitan culture is considered immoral. The clash between the two cultures is the central feature of the novel, with Giraut's development as a person connected to his realisation that the people of Caledon are human too, and that he can communicate with at least some of them.

A Million Open Doors is an excellent novel, based on interesting ideas drawn out with intelligence, with a believable background and convincing characters.

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