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Mother of Storms
by John Barnes
Just in time for hurricane season, John Barnes brings us science fiction for meteorologists. Mother of Storms will probably be labelled as "a chilling ecological thriller!" but it's much more than that. A military--excuse me, peacekeeping--strike by the UN causes sudden, rapid global warming, which results in the birth of a superhurricane of unprecedented size, strength, and longevity. This storm spawns a number of daughter storms, which proceed to rampage around the planet, doing a pretty good job of bringing civilization to its knees. This book has flood, pestilence, and war; there's famine too, but it's mostly offstage. There's death and destruction of incomprehensible magnitude. Nations and coastlines crumble. Despite all this, a certain cheerful cynicism that pervades the book keeps it entertaining and amusing.
That cheerful cynicism is also what makes Barnes' near-future society of 2028 so plausible. The world is quite different politically; the UN is the dominant political and military power, and the President of the United States is waging a constant battle to regain some measure of the States' former sovereignty. TV and newspapers have been largely supplanted by XV, which lets the public experience the full range of sensory experience being transmitted by a character. (Needless to say, this has revolutionized the porn industry.) The net still exists, but in a greatly expanded state (has to be; XV consumes an enormous amount of bandwidth). Cars drive themselves. There's a wonderful digression about a group of self-replicating robots on the moon who start to model some of the more unpleasant behaviors of societies.
Unlike Barnes' previous books, Mother of Storms has a fairly large cast of viewpoint characters. This usually irritates me, but I didn't mind it here, and their interactions are pwell-handled and informative, although occasionally in moving them about the author's manipulations are a bit blatant. (Especially when one character's ex-girlfriend, who has just undergone a sudden and not entirely credible change in personality, is swept up by a Plot Device in Shining Armor and transported directly across most of Mexico and a good bit of the States to where she happens to bump into another viewpoint character.) They're not all necessarily good guys, either, although with the hurricanes wreaking wholesale destruction upon the world's coastal areas, ethical categories tend to become irrelevant. But even the Evil American Corporate Magnate is a pretty likable guy.
There's an undercurrent of thoughtfulness in the theme of the role of the media. In the world of 2028 there has ceased to be any distinction between news and entertainment; for instance, the romance/porn network sends its characters to world hot spots, where they observe momentous events, think carefully scripted thoughts, and have mad, passionate sex as often as possible. But when subscribers all over the world are plugged into "reporters" who are shot, or drowning, or just angry and scared, those sensations are echoed by the "viewing public," which can cause global riots with a death toll approaching that of one of the superhurricanes. Conversely, the government can calm the rioters and encourage docility by having the nets broadcast feelings of peace and brotherhood. Does this constitute censorship or mind control? Who's at fault when people refuse to unplug, even to evacuate areas endangered by the storms?
I realize I'm in the minority here, but I would have enjoyed this book more had it been a little less, um, graphic. I have this vision of an editor reading the first draft and saying, "Great book, John, but it really needs more sex and violence!" There's a subplot concerning full-sensory "snuff films" that contributes very little to the book, except to kick off a spate of assassinations that I could also have done without. (There was already plenty of senseless tragedy to go around by this point.) I was also rather disturbed by some of the graphic descriptions of violent death, such as a woman's head being squashed like a pumpkin, or, well, quite a bit of it can't be described on a family newsgroup. I realize the point of these tragic little vignettes was to illustrate on a personal, graspable level what was occurring on a global basis, but I still found some of the descriptions a bit offputting.
I also think that the ending would have been improved if the last 50 or so pages had been compressed into about 20 pages; the end drags out to a bit of an anticlimax, although it's still full of nifty science, continuing slaughter, and messages of hope.
Incidentally, Mother of Storms is written in the present, rather than past, tense. This isn't nearly as distracting as you might expect, and it gives a certain sense of immediacy to the story.
I have yet to read a John Barnes book that I don't like, and Mother of Storms didn't disappoint me. It's a very ambitious book, but Barnes manages to handle the large cast of characters, the proverbially dull subject of the weather, and the nigh-destruction of civilization as we know it with humor and flair. Find this book, but read it somewhere inland.
-- Christina Schulman.
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