Thursday, 11 January 2001

John Barnes: Earth Made of Glass (1998)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 711

The sequel to A Million Open Doors is set over a decade later. The central characters, Giraut de Leones and his wife Margaret (who met in the course of the first novel) are in something of a rut in their relationship, despite the interest of their job as ambassadors seeking to help bring back together the splintered Thousand Cultures of humanity as instantaneous travel between the human colonised planets of the galaxy has become possible. They are given a new assignment, to travel to Briana, settled by two xenophobic cultures where the teleportation system is likely to bring war. The two cultures are literary, like Giraut's home Occitan background, put together by scholars, based on the ancient Maya and Tamil.

In Earth Made of Glass, as exciting and inventive as A Million Open Doors, we learn a lot more about how the splintered human cultures came into being. This is basically because Giraut, as narrator, is no longer an enthusiastic adolescent from a planet recently recontacted, but an older diplomat who knows a great deal about the ways in which human beings interact. (This does not, of course, make him able to understand his wife.) The development of Giraut's personality is a strong part of the novel, a lot of his narrative being taken up with introspection about the changes within him, and it is very well done.

One of the major strengths of the novel, like its predecessor, is the portrayal of the two cultures. This is a more difficult task here, where both of them will be far less familiar to most Westerners than the machismo of Occitan and the Puritans of Caledon. The Tamil culture, in which most of the action takes place, is particularly well drawn. This has something to say for today, as these cultures know that they are doomed by the cultural and economic imperialism of the Interstellars, as distinct cultures today are threatened by the American way of life. We are today far more homogeneous than at almost any time in the history of the human race, and so much is lost to us as a result. To go into a Spanish bookshop, as I did fairly recently, to find that almost all the books for sale are translations of English bestsellers is a good illustration of this. It may be convenient, but it is impoverishing.

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