Fiction Reviews

Kaleidoscope Century

(1995) John Barnes, Millennium, 15.99, hrdbk, 252pp. ISBN 1 85798 269 X hdbk (ISBN 1 85798 274 6 pbk)


If, after Mother of Storms, you thought that John Barnes was a tad tame then stand by for a paradigm shift. Kaleidoscope Century is hard, sassy and streetwise. It is hard both as in hard SF and as a violent tour of the coming century. This is not to say that the violence is gratuitous (though some of it is, but necessarily inherent to the plot) but it is rationalised in a human imperfect sense, to underpin a love story. (All go 'aaahhhh'.) But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

A straightforward tour through a hypothetical 21st century has been done before. Barnes does it differently. His protagonist looks at our future through the kaleidoscopic fragments of memory while recovering as a convalescing amnesiac. That we find the amnesiac is all alone and on Mars with only the computer records he left himself before his 'illness', which provides both the exotic setting, the puzzle and the means for plot resolution early on. As the memories of an earlier life on Earth emerge, so does a picture that unnervingly, as with any good detective story; fails to gel: only this is not a 'whodunnit' but a 'how did it'. Meanwhile civilization on Earth slowly unravels. First there is the crime, then the megacorporations and politics backed up with the latest technology, then the terrorism and the war. It all gets completely out of hand when the computer viruses start infecting people and being human on planet Earth suddenly loses its appeal. Make the protagonist one mercenary to surf crests of chaos crashing through the century, tell him he is given (in effect) a super power (but not indestructibility) and you are in for one adrenalin-packed technocoaster ride through time. Go for it. (And as a bonus there is a nice SFnal twist towards the end.)

Jonathan Cowie

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