Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1998

Earth Made of Glass

By John Barnes

New York: Tor, 1998, $25.95
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

I haven’t liked all of John Barnes’s books; there are one or two I just haven’t been able to read, and several that I’ve finished I have no intention of ever rereading. Barnes is clearly not a libertarian, despite his having contributed to the Free Space collection; his comments on libertarianism there and his dismissal of the Austrian economists as crackpots in this new book make this evident. His content tends to a certain ugliness, most notably in Kaleidoscope Century, which I gave up on after one too many descriptions from his viewpoint character of “serbing the prisoners.” His literary methods are often flawed, as in Orbital Resonance, which ends with a deus ex machina that makes everything the characters have previously done irrelevant to the novel’s outcome.

Despite this, I took a chance on Earth Made of Glass. It was the sequel to my favorite of his earlier books, A Million Open Doors, in which an emissary from a romantic medievalist culture is sent to a culture where a bizarre mixture of Calvinism and Objectivism is used to justify a totally planned “free market” economy, and I hoped that it would be equally enjoyable to read. It was, and it exemplified why Barnes’ fiction is worth looking at despite its flaws: Barnes offers one of the most adult viewpoints to be found in present-day science fiction.

By “adult” on one hand I am thinking of his treatment of ideas and historical change. Science fiction is theoretically supposed to be a literature of ideas—but there aren’t as many new ideas lately as I would like. Too much science fiction is based on fifth-generation reexaminations of old plot devices, which have taken on a life of their own detached from reality: yet another ingenious faster-than-light drive with entertaining side effects, yet another subrace of psionically gifted mutants, and so on. Barnes uses one such plot device in this novel, the springer, an instantaneous teleportation machine, but purely as a vehicle for the examination of historical change, contact between cultures, and ethnic hatred. He offers us a tragic vision of history and of individual human beings trying to steer it onto a less destructive path downhill, one that makes me think of Heinlein’s or Kipling’s best characters. Barnes’s heroes—a label I suspect he would find uncomfortable—are people who make genuinely important decisions, decisions that have a cost in human lives and that have to be made too quickly and with too little information.

The other aspect in which I think Earth Made of Glass is a distinctively adult novel is its treatment of human relationships, and especially of the marriage of its two central characters. I can scarcely think of any science fiction novel that has portrayed a long-established relationship so convincingly, without the romanticism that’s natural to portrayals of new couples but also without bitterness. Barnes’s use of the literary device of making his protagonist, Giraut Leones, blind to the meanings of his wife’s actions long after they have become obvious to the reader, makes for somewhat heavy irony—but everything in Giraut’s characterization makes it believable that he would suffer from such blindness and that his blindness would be one of the strains on his marriage. And at the same time, Barnes shows us Giraut and Margaret working together effectively, especially at a party where they maneuver around the determined efforts of a young woman guest to seduce Giraut for reasons having little to do with Giraut.

In short, this is an interesting and intelligent novel, one that isn’t just saying the same things you’ve read in innumerable earlier science fiction novels. I believe it stands up well on its own, but you probably will want to track down A Million Open Doors as well. Perhaps there will be a third in the series some day. There ought to be, if Barnes is intentionally following the Heinleinian model. A Million Open Doors gave us Giraut as Panshin’s stage one Heinlein Individual, the bright young man, and Earth Made of Glass gives us Panshin’s stage two Heinlein Individual, the competent mature man—perhaps Barnes can someday show him as the stage three Heinlein Individual, the wise old man typified by Baslim the Cripple and Jubal Harshaw. I don’t find the comparison of Barnes to Heinlein as convincing as his publishers’ blurb writers seem to, but in these novels he does a great deal to justify it.

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Last modified: Mon Apr 13 20:44:02 PDT 2020