Mar 26 2009 10:36am

A brilliant standalone book: John Barnes’s A Million Open Doors

A Million Open Doors is a wonderful immersive science fiction novel. John Barnes is an important writer, and this is perhaps his best book. It’s set about a thousand years from now, in a future history that plausibly is intended to start from here. There’s a very interesting article in Apostrophes and Apocalypses about how Barnes made up the universe, which I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in worldbuilding. The history feels like history—a number of reachable terraformable planets were settled, then outward colonization stopped. Some of the cultures that settled the available planets were very odd indeed. Now the “springer” has been invented, a matter transmitter that works between worlds, and humanity is back in contact and expanding again.

A Million Open Doors opens in the culture of Nou Occitan on the planet of Wilson. And it opens in the engaging and self-centred point of view of Giraut (that’s pronounced “gear-out,” Occitan isn’t French) a jouvent, a young man who is part of the youth culture of the planet, devoted to art and duelling and “finamor,” passionate but empty romance. Through Giraut’s eyes, Nou Occitan is fascinating and romantic. Springers reached it about ten years ago, and are slowly changing everything. One night Giraut’s drinking with his friend Aimeric, a refugee from the culture of Caledonia on the planet Nansen, when the prime minister of Nou Occitan turns up to explain that Nansen has opened up springer contact, and the Council For Humanity would really like him to go home to help. Giraut goes with him, and we see the second culture of the book, the city of Utilitopia on cold hostile Nansen, where everything has to be rational by rules that look very irrational indeed.

Barnes sets it up so that the two cultures reflect each other very well, so that Giraut illuminates cultureless Utilitopia with Occitan art and cooking while realising through Caledonian sexual equality and non-violence that his own culture is really not a very nice place for women, and perhaps their constant dueling is really a little much. Both cultures have strange things wrong with them. Both cultures are fascinating, though I wouldn’t want to live in either of them. On Nou Occitan, artists describe the planet as it will be when the terraforming is finished—there are songs about forests that have only just been planted, and no paintings of what things actually look like now, halfway through the terraforming process. In Caledonia it’s considered irrational and immoral to do anything for anyone without being paid for it. They’re both interestingly weird, and they’re both having problems caused by the new springer technology.

The political and economic maneuvering around the opening of the springers and contact lead to excitement, new artistic movements, and new fashions on both planets. The events in Utilitopia can be seen as “SF as fantasy of political agency” but I don’t think it’s a problem. Giraut finds something to believe in, and something to write songs about. Eventually, by accident, they discover ruins that might be alien or might be unimaginably ancient human ruins. (“Martians or Atlantis?” as an investigator puts it.) At the end of the book Giraut and his new Caledonian wife are recruited into the Council for Humanity with the hope of bringing humanity together even as it fragments again in a new era of exploration and colonization, and bringing it together with grace and style rather than bureaucracy. This is a wonderfully open ending. You don’t need any more, but of course you think you want it.

If Barnes had stopped there, I’d be able to point at A Million Open Doors as a pretty much perfect example, almost a textbook example, of the subgenre of science fiction I like best. It’s a really great well-written book. It’s set in our future. It has fascinating anthropology. It concerns the introduction and implications of a new technology. It has nifty ideas. It has great characters, who grow during the story. It opens out and out. It has at least the possibility of aliens. And it’s a hopeful vision—not a stupidly gung-ho vision, but a positive one.

Unfortunately, the later Thousand Cultures books fail for me. It isn’t so much Earth Made of Glass, though I know a lot of people don’t like it, and it is a bit of a downer. Earth Made of Glass is about Giraut visiting two other (brilliantly depicted, fascinating) cultures which in the end destroy themselves. (It’s like that joke about “Join the army, travel the world, meet interesting people and kill them...”) It’s that after that, in Merchants of Souls and The Armies of Memory Barnes appears to have decided to reimagine and retcon both the world of Nou Occitan, occasionally actually contradicting what’s said in A Million Open Doors, and the central significance of what the series is about. These later books are about the “problem of leisure” (which strikes me as as much a non-problem as the Singularity) the pointlessness of people’s lives when AIs and robots can do most of the work, to such an extent that humanity seems like it isn’t worth bothering with after all, and as for the aliens, and the new expansion, that’s all retconned into irrelevance. I’m afraid that on re-reading and reflection and seeing these as a completed set, I have to give the advice people always give about the reading order for the Dune books. “Read the first one and stop.”

Blue Tyson
1. BlueTyson
Didn't actually like this one much, either.
Mary Frances
3. Mary Frances
I'm with you on this one, Jo. I loved A Million Open Doors. It was the second Barnes book I'd ever read, after Orbital Resonance (which I still think is one of the better YA-SF books ever published, despite not being officially YA), but the sequels? I couldn't get into them, and eventually I just sort of forgot about Barnes altogether. Which--looking back--is probably a pity.
Trey Palmer
4. Pilgrim
Well, I liked both A Million Open Doors and Earth Made of Glass, but the latter two books didn't do as much for me, but Merchants of Souls wasn't bad. I enjoyed the peeks we got at the other cultures, particularly Hedonia.

I loved the characters and the world building in all three, but by Merchants of Souls it was wobbling on the rails. In Armies of Memory it came off the rails entirely (in my opinion). It didn't need rapacious experience hungry aliens, it did need to start dealing with cultures that may have changed the very definition of what human is. Instead, by the end, we get a gloss of that as every human and AI unify against the impending threat.
Mary Frances
5. Susan Loyal
Ah, the rare (exceedingly rare) occasion when I don't agree with you. I actually think Earth Made of Glass is much the strongest of these novels, although A Million Open Doors has more charm. It's rare that anyone writes about the experience of failure--not oops-move-fast-and-I-can-correct-that error but OMG-the-wheels-have-come-off-and-all-we-can-do-is-watch failure. It's certainly not pleasant, but it's an integral part of the human experience that usually gets left out of fiction, and Barnes really nailed it Earth Made of Glass.
Mary Frances
6. Tony Zbaraschuk
Earth Made of Glass is on my list of books which are very well done, and so unpleasant to experience that I have no intention of reading them again. Barnes does books which you will either like very much, or hate very much, and there is no telling before you read a new Barnes which of them it will be... but it's usually an exciting voyage no matter which.
Mary Frances
7. Daniel78
The problem of leisure I think is real. To some extent I do believe it is the strugle of life for humanity that makes it worth living. When we are the happiest is when we have someing difficult to do and then do it well.

Heinlein deals with this in some of his works. Haven't read any of the books you mention above so they may very well not be all that good. I do agree with you on the Dune books, after the first they fell very far very fast.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Daniel78: Look at the internet. Everywhere you can see examples of the kinds of things people can do when they don't need to struggle for food and shelter. If we had leisure, we'd have a few suicides, but we'd have a lot more examples of battles done in jellybabies and sheep with LEDs on their sides and Wikipedia and podcasts of Shakespeare in Clanger. Because that's what people care about when they have the luxury of free time, and have ever since they were drawing in paint on cave walls.
Richard Fife
9. R.Fife
to further expound all philosophical like:

If we lack a struggle, we make it by tasking ourselves with challenges. The very fact that society and indeed humanity has been able to flourish (at least in my semi-informed opinion) is that we don't have to struggle as much. Before we had agriculture, we roamed around and did not advance cause we were busy finding food. Then we could grow food, and we made cities, etc. We have probably gained as much "leisure" from the nomad days as humans of Wall-E have to us.

Granted Wall-E is somewhat dystopian in the outcome, but I'd say that, in our gaining of free time, we have found sufficient other things to keep us occupied. Like me! I don't have to work that hard, so I can lurk and write books that may or may not see the light of day. Yay!
Steve Taylor
10. teapot7
Jo - I treasure your articles and think they deserve to be collected and preserved. I turn to them first, much as I turn to Nick Lowe's film reviews in Interzone.

But just this once you've got me jumping up and down with outrage, much like the xkcd cartoon about "Someone is wrong on the Internet!"

I agree that the third book is the series is of no real merit, and the fourth is good but heads off in directions it shouldn't - but The Earth Made of Glass is for me one of the best SF novels ever written, and overshadows its excellent predecessor. It's rare (no, no, not unknown) that SF, with its love of solutions and resolutions comes up with a good tragedy, and I can't think of any SF book that's done such an excellent job with ethnic hatred. Ethnic violence is one of the great engines that drives history, but I've never seen an SF author come to grips with it as well.

It is, as pointed out above, an ugly and depressing read, but a worthwhile one. It and A Million Open Doors bookend each other beautifully too - one a book of hope, one of despair.

As for the third book - well, John Barnes confuses the hell out of me. He writes excellent books at the top of the field. He write loathsome and tedious rubbish. He writes delightful but forgettable popcorn. I'm never sure which John Barnes I'm going pick up on a given day.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Teapot: I admire Earth Made of Glass but I find it hard to like.

I agree entirely about never knowing what you're going to get from Barnes. It's hard to believe the same person wrote this and Kaleidoscope Century and One For The Morning Glory.
Julian Hall
12. Jules
Interesting. The only book I've read in this series is Earth Made of Glass, which turned me off the entire thing. I've heard people talk about this book before but I still don't think I've entirely recovered from Earth Made of Glass, which is I think one of the most depressing books ever written (I summarised it to a friend like this once: "diplomats sent to a world on the brink of war in order to prevent it; one becomes impotent; they fail").

It's certainly not pleasant, but it's an integral part of the human experience that usually gets left out of fiction, and Barnes really nailed it Earth Made of Glass.

I think there's a reason it usually gets left out of fiction; it just doesn't leave you satisfied if a book ends on a note of total and utter failure.
Nicholas Alcock
13. NullNix
I suspect _Kaleidoscope Century_ is more depressing yet. One True and the Meme Wars are simultaneously bloody horrifying and have a sort of numb maleficient dullness to them... definitely one I can't reread.
Michael Murphy
14. mdmurphy
I think that Tony Zbaraschuk @6 above gets it exactly right as to how "Earth Made of Glass", and Barnes in general, strike me. Nice to see some enthusiasm for "A Million Open Doors", though.
Bob Blough
15. Bob
I have to completely agree with Ms. Walton. "A Million Open Doors" is a terific novel. So is "Orbital Resonance" for that matter. "The World Made of Glass" was well written but not interesting enough to make me want to continue with the series. He really is a writer that flip flops for me. Now I have to read a really good review by some critic I admire in order to try him again.
L. K.
16. kitryan
Ooh! One For The Morning Glory! Reread that!
Mary Frances
17. Jordan Retro 5
Good articles and thanks for sharing! But it's so weird that you blog is in a mess through my new Firefox. I dont think it's my explore problem? Beacuse it's pretty normal when visit other websites.Cool, i am impressed with the views there, it is really a good idea to visit UK to enjoy our holiday!
By Jordan Retro 5

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