Book review: The Armies of Memory, by John Barnes

21 10 2016

John Barnes is a US science fiction writer whose novels have several times been nominated for the Nebula Award (and once for the Hugo). One of those Nebula nominations was for A Million Open Doors, the first book in his ‘Thousand Cultures’ sequence focussing on the exploits of OSP special agent / lute musician Giraut Leones. (One of my recent blog posts explored the blurbish irregularities of the second book in that sequence, Earth Made of Glass.) The backstory to the ‘Thousand Culture’ books is that an initial disapora resulted in the colonisation of the habitable planets in Sol system’s neighbourhood by a diverse set of slightly more than a thousand designed cultures ranging from the fanciful to the austere, between which interstellar traffic ceased for several hundred years, then was rekindled with the discovery / invention of a technology, the ‘Springer’, permitting the instantaneous teleportation of people and objects across interstellar distances. Giraut’s own home culture of ‘Nou Occitan’ derives from an idealised (romantic, chivalrous, somewhat misogynous) reworking of society within medieval Occitania, with a focus on singing, duelling, drinking, and womanising (all in accordance within certain societal expectations).


The Armies of Memory (2006) is the fourth, most recent, and very possibly final book of the Thousand Cultures series. It opens with Giraut’s preparations for the public concert he is giving to mark his fiftieth birthday, a concert which nearly ends disastrously as an audience member makes an attempt on Giraut’s life with a concealed maser. (The concert would have been controversial in any event, given Giraut’s presentation of a new song-cycle exploring the life and death of the polarising prophet-politician Ix; the attempted assassination ensures a great deal of additional attention, not all of it welcome.) Things snowball from there, but in a fashion that seems extremely haphazard. This isn’t a book which telegraphs its central theme within the first chapter or two; instead, it feels almost picaresque, and indeed three sections of the book were first published, as shorter works, in Analog.

The story is told in Giraut’s own voice, with a mixture of world-weary pretension and self-deprecating pomposity: it is, all things told, quite an endearing voice, and a refreshing one to encounter in a serious work of SF. I’ll quote just a couple of snippets from the first two chapters:

Dad, Paxa, Laprada and Raimbaut comprised the Office of Special Projects team that I commanded. At least the OSP thought I commanded them. Actually I filled out the paperwork and did the apologizing after the team accomplished a mission. As for giving orders and having them followed, I’d have had better luck trying to organize an all-ferret marching band.


There are no more than a dozen occupations—political agent and artist are two—in which everything you do becomes part of your job. They are the only tolerable things to do with your time, as far as I’m concerned.

A song is not a tool for changing a human heart in the way that a wrench is a tool for changing a bolt, but it was the tool I had, and I was the tool the OSP had.

The voice gives the series a more playful-seeming edge than it would otherwise have, in much the same way that the Culture ship names in Iain M Banks’ novels are always something to watch out for: it provides a surface sheen, a levity, to something which turns out to be surprisingly serious-minded and multilevelled. (Indeed, one of the things that’s most impressive about the ‘Thousand Cultures’ series, and this book in particular, is the attention-to-detail offered to societal or industrial applications of ‘springer’ technology, of ‘psypyx’ recordings of human identity—permitting, often but not always, a means of reincarnation within a new, fast-cloned body—and of AI and the human resistance to AI. It conveys, quite clearly, a future which feels ‘cluttered’ and lived-in.)

The Armies of Memory isn’t as iconic a work as either A Million Open Doors or Earth Made of Glass, each of which in its own way is an outstanding piece of SF; this last book in the series is a little too scattered in its focus, and lacks the sheer propulsiveness of plot of those earlier books. But this, I think, has to represent a conscious choice by Barnes, who’s clearly capable of delivering  a tightly suspenseful, action-filled and more-or-less linear narrative, and has chosen here to attempt something different, by way of closing out the series. It works, for the most part, and it’s compelling enough (once things properly get moving, which does take a while, but Giraut’s head is an interesting place to be in regardless of whatever’s transpiring around him), with just enough left unresolved that one might hope Barnes will yet return to the series, even though this book does finish up with something that feels very much like a conclusion, a coda.

What appeals to me most about the series, ultimately, is its sense of cautious hope, its unwillingness to edge into dystopia. Well, that and the wordplay. And the swordplay. I’m probably not a million miles wrong when I say that the series is like a cross between The Princess Bride and Bladerunner.




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