Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Barnes, John. The Sky So Big and Black. Tor, 2002, 315 p.
Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon, Del Rey, 2002, 375 p.

The only thing these two books have in common is that they are both science fiction. One is by a well-known, highly published author. The other is a first novel by a former school teacher. Guess which one is better, more compelling, and much more enjoyable? Easy question. I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't a trick question. Hands down, Altered Carbon, Morgan's first novel, is the better of the two.

Barnes has written a number of books, many of which have been well-reviewed. This is the first of his that I've read and based on it, I have to wonder why he gets published. This book is dull, boring, without many redeeming values. It is derivitive of Robert Heinlein - unfortunately of the later Heinlein, not the Heinlein of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger In a Strange Land, or The Puppet Masters but the Heinlein of such dreck as Time Enough for Love or To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Barnes goes after the fierce libertarianism Heinlein displayed in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but falls far short of the necessary requisite of any good novel: a solid plot with sympathetic characters who appear to be flesh and blood.

Barnes world is a Mars that is slowly being terraformed. He relates the tale of one of the early planetary settlers who now realizes that his time has passed and that Mars is about to become "civilized." We are treated to his ruggedly individualistic philosophy. And we learn about his daughter, who accompanies him and we have faint echoes of Heinlein's incest fascination. She is in fact one of the narrators of the story. The other is a psychologist, assigned to examine her after her father's death during a sudden solar flare. I'm not giving anything away, as this much is discussed on the books dust jacket.

The setting is promising and there is a story here. Unfortunately, Barnes does nothing with it. It takes fully two-thirds of the book before we see any action and by that time, I was skimming.

The settlement and terraforming of Mars is an old SF motif. Too bad that Barnes doesn't manage to make anything of it.

Richard Morgan, on the other hand, grabs you by the throat on the first page and doesn't let go until the end. It's a rip-roaring ride through an Earth set 4 centuries into the future, but immediately recognizeable to anyone who has lived to see the 21st century.

Morgan's protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs is recruited to investigate a murder on Earth. The novelty is that Kovacs is brought back from the dead after he has been lasered in an ambush on a planet far from Earth. Kovacs awakes to find himself in a new body, on Earth, and commanded to investigate the murder of a 375 year old man. It's not the first time Kovacs has been resurrected. It's a common experience in his time because a person's consciousness can be downloaded into a stack stored at the base of the cortex. The only time a person really dies is when the stack is destroyed. Unless that happens, resurrection into one's old body, or a new body is always a possiblity.

Morgan's prose is like a speeding race car. It's full-barrel down the straight-away and full to hair-pin twists. He keeps the plot moving, while maintaining a believability that everything could really have happened in this world. They mystery is worthy of Raymond Chandler. It exposes the dark underbelly of the world Kovacs inhabits, while he struggles with his sense of morality and maintaining his fragile sense of integrity. It's a tour de force ride. I'm looking forward to reading more about Kovacs.

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