Nasty, but brilliant: John Barnes’s Kaleidoscope Century

Kaleidoscope Century is one of the most unpleasant books I’ve ever read, I can hardly believe I’ve read it again. All the same it’s a major work and very nearly a masterpiece. A man lives through the twenty-first century. Every fifteen years he gets ten years younger and forgets almost everything about the preceding fifteen years. He doesn’t know what he’s done, who he’s been, both his memories and the notes on his computer are fragmentary and contradictory. He wakes up this one time on Mars, with few possessions, but dragging an awful lot of baggage of the other kind. He isn’t a nice person, and he has done terrible things, for which he is intermittently and weirdly repentant. He thinks through what he can remember and dredge together of the century, then he goes looking for his old partner-in-crime. And then it gets weird.

This is the most unsuitable book for children in the history of the universe. I think it’s quite appropriate that there be books for grown ups, and this be one of them. It’s only odd in that it’s the sequel to Orbital Resonance, which is pretty much a YA.

It seems as if Barnes sat down in 1990 when writing Orbital Resonance and worked out in detail everything that happened from that day onwards for a hundred years, and then didn’t change anything in the future history even when time changed it. This means that when he wrote Kaleidoscope Century in 1995 it was already alternate history—never mind Heinlein’s 1957 giving us an out-of-date 1970 and 2000. This is weird, and while I don’t think it hurts Kaleidoscope Century much—there are possible reasons for it—it is a real problem for me once the series gets to The Sky So Big and Black. The details sound like real science fictional future history, but they are uniformly unpleasant—and far more unpleasant than anything that has actually happened in the 19 years since. This is a really detailed and well-thought out future, with a good understanding of the way changing tech changes possibilities, but it seems to have been thought out by someone who always looks on the black side and doesn’t have any faith in humanity. Having said that, horrible as Barnes’s century is, even when made deliberately worse by the characters, it can’t hold a candle to the twentieth century for real horror.

Barnes is always immensely readable. That’s a problem here, actually. Joshua Ali Quare is an unreliable narrator, he’s also a horrible person. There’s more rape and murder in this book than in everything else on the bookcase put together—and it’s rape and murder seen from the point of view of someone for whom they’re fun. Yet most of the time Quare is written to be kind of endearing, just getting along, but getting along includes a lot of making the world a worse place in big and small ways. He starts riots. He assassinates people. He rapes—or as he puts it “serbs”—women and girls. He’s a mercenary. And at other times he rescues a little street girl and brings her up as his daughter, works quietly as a rigger on a space elevator, or as a prospector on Mars. He justifies himself to himself and to his best friend and to the reader. He’s too much of a monster, or not enough of one. You spend a lot of time in his head when reading the book, and his head is a nasty place to be.

Now actual spoilers: the plot doesn’t quite work. Closed timelike curve me whatever handwaves you like, if you’re dead you stop going through. And I’m not sure the book needs it anyway, it would have been perfectly good with the 15 years and losing memory thing without the endless repetition. And if they have ships that can do that, can skip bits of it, then it doesn’t make emotional sense, and really in the end emotional sense is all you can hope for.

But despite making no sense, rape, murder, and a very unpleasant future, it’s still an excellently written and vastly ambitious book, with a scope both science fictional and literary. That’s what ultimately makes it a good book, though I do not like it. It has such a vast reach that it doesn’t actually matter that it exceeds its grasp, or that it seems to be Hell rather than Heaven that it’s reaching for.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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