Candle (John Barnes)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is a hard sci-fi exploration of identity in a world dominated by technology that intrudes both into the human environment and also the human psyche.  The hard sci-fi treatment of an interesting issue is very intriguing, and you can’t help but appreciate the fact that there is real imagination here and the author is venturing way out of familiar sci-fi environments.  Unfortunately, the characters feel a bit empty; they just acquiesce to the environments and situations they are placed in without any significant internal struggle or motivations or impetus of their own.  Overall, I would definately recommend this book, but with the notable caveat that it will appeal almost solely to people interested in big-idea hard sci-fi books and not people interested in rich characters or intriguing social interactions.

Greater Detail:
Currie Curran lives in a utopia micro-managed by an artificial intelligence that manages both his environment and his thoughts.  When a man rejecting the insertion of an artificial mind into his own emerges from the wilderness, Curran is called back to service to track down and incapacitate this “cowboy” so that he can be joined with the artificial intelligence.  On his quest to find this mysterious individual, Curran must relive the experience that led to the global dominance of AI and begins to question his p;ace (and humanity’s) in this distorted reality.

The main story is quite good overall.  It starts with an intriguing premise and mostly explores it in a satisfactory manner.  The main issues arise when we are diverted into backstories of the characters or the setting, which are mostly lifeless and disappointing.  They aren’t bad, but they are clearly a distraction from the main narrative, and given the weak characterization overal,l they feel more like exploring a series of empty rooms rather than a fascinating discovery of rich characters with hidden motivations.

The protagonist is basically just a generic thoughtful sci-fi hero action guy, which is fine until the author expects us to be riveted by his backstory, which dominates a good portion of the book.  No matter how many wives and children he has lost, a generic thoughtful sci-fi action hero guy just can’t carry a section devoted to exploring psychological reactions to a world gone wrong if he doesn’t really have much psychology to speak of.

The good side is that exploring a world dominated by a hive-mind style artificial intelligence is fun.  It isn’t a genre that has been fully explored yet, and the author’s insights are usually interesting.  The few scenes where the AI directly influences thoughts leave you sort of chilled and wondering where the line between man and machine will actually be drawn.

A large section of the story is set out in the desolate wilderness, and this too is a nice surprise for anyone who has spent a significant amount of time outdoors.  The author has a firm grasp of how it feels to be away from fully developed areas and artfully articulates the experience. Most of the time, authors have no real conception of how to relate to a non-urban environment and their outdoor scenes are laughably implausible or contrived; as a contrast, John Barnes’ handling of the subject was very nice.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
Chasm City by Alistar Reynolds has a lot of the same issues of self and machine and the same feel as this book, but a bit less of the hard sci-fi edge and more of a psychological edge with stronger characters

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Leave a Reply