|Submitted by Karen Burnham |
(Nov 07, 2006)
“A Million Open Doors” is the first book in a series by John Barnes that continues to this day. In it he sets up a universe and a hero that allow him to interrogate any number of interesting questions. In this first book, the focus is on the clash of cultures and economic systems; specifically relating to the (then) recent fall of the Soviet Union. More recently in his stories in Analog magazine, he has looked at terrorism, social stagnation and computerization. The fact that he has been so flexible is a credit to his auctorial skills and the wide scope of the universe he built.
In this far future, humanity has colonized a few hundred planets or so. People identify themselves mostly in terms of their “Culture,” and there are usually only a few Cultures per planet. With interstellar travel difficult and expensive, it is not difficult to live your whole life without being exposed to any other Culture. However, when a reasonably priced system of teleportation is discovered, the barriers between societies start to fall. The information on how to build these “springer” devices is being broadcast out, reaching planets in the order of their distance from the inner planets.
Our hero Giraut is a young man from Nou Occitan, a planet recently introduced to the wider interstellar network. He is a product of his culture, one that embraces the Romantic values of the troubadour. He duels and keeps mistresses and pines over them. However, when his friend is called upon to help another Culture through the shock of connecting to the network, and his current entendedora abandons him, he goes with Aimeric to Caledon, a Culture with a strictly centrally controlled “capitalist” religious structure. Its overwhelmingly grey scenery, lack of individual freedom, and patently ridiculous economic injunctions makes it the stand in for Communist Russia.
Barnes is not so naďve as to make Nou Occitan some sort of American Utopia. As Giraut begins to gain perspective (broadening the mind through travel), he can look at his home Culture more objectively, especially seeing how the entendedora system puts women on pedestals, thus valuing them only insofar as they attract and inspire men and ignoring them in any other role, while also turning a blind eye to and tacitly encouraging abuse. He also begins to grow up personally as he realizes that even plain women can be attractive and that working for a higher cause can be fulfilling.
The plot is almost secondary to the world building, which takes a lot of time. Luckily the first person narration from Giraut is engaging and doesn’t spend too much time letting him be an idiot (as these types of narration sometimes do). Springer-type teleportation technology has been seen in many science fiction novels of the past two decades, especially Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos and Charles Stross’ “Glasshouse” story. However, rarely has it been so explicitly a mechanism for piercing boundaries, nor for the idea of piercing those cultural boundaries which are so much more complicated than physical ones. In this way Barnes can examine questions of globalization which inform how we’ve approached the future since then.
As the Springer started to affect Caldeonian culture, strict reactionist factions gained power. Giraut and Aimeric band with the nascent liberal reformer elements (previously harshly repressed) in an effort to both liberalize the Culture and to soften the effects of moving from a controlled economy to an interstellar free-for-all. In this it recognized some of the problems that the third world has in fact had in the last fifteen years. Barnes can’t quite provide a comprehensive examination in a three hundred page novel: in the end the Caledon Culture is let off pretty easily by a mighty convenient discovery that gets their Culture through the post-Contact depression quickly. Also one would think that the Culture as described would never have lasted for a few hundred years; Communist Russia couldn’t hold it together for even one century. Still, it certainly provides a solid platform for the ideas that Barnes is bringing to our attention.
I discovered this series only recently in Analog magazine, so I found it especially delightful to see the origins of characters who were old hands by the time I read about them. You could as easily start with “The Armies of Memory,” the most recent book in the sequence; Barnes is very good about allowing readers to pick things up in the middle. However you usually can’t go wrong by taking a trip back to the beginning and this is a particularly thoughtful novel. It may encourage one to think about the history of our world since its publication in some interesting ways.