'Gorgon Child' was Steven Barnes's seventh published novel and it's the one book in his bibliography that I was looking forward to most but dreading the most at the same time. That's because it's the second in the 'Aubry Knight' trilogy, following 'Street Lethal', my least favourite Barnes thus far. Yet my favourite Barnes thus far, however, was his other prior solo novel, 'The Kundalini Equation'. I was eager to read more solo Barnes but dearly wanted this trilogy to seriously improve.
And it did. Now I've read it, I'd hazard a guess that 'Street Lethal' wasn't just his debut novel without outside collaboration but also his debut novel, period. It feels like he'd written it but couldn't get it published until he had a couple of successful collaborations with Larry Niven behind him. This, on the other hand, doesn't remotely feel like a debut. It feels as if Barnes has become very comfortable with the process of writing, because while that prior novel was mostly about tone, this is about character, story and theme. It's much more sophisticated and much more successful.
It's also much more prescient, almost uncomfortably so. 'Street Lethal' felt like that gritty future that the eighties hivemind was utterly convinced we couldn't possibly avoid but which turned out to be about as accurate a look into the future as an MC Hammer video. 'Gorgon Child', however, is where we are right now, down to a lot of rather scary details.
Sure, not everything's exactly right. It's set in 2028 rather than 2020, but that could be a typo by the proofreaders at Tor. The plague that wiped out hundreds of thousands of Americans originated in Thailand rather than China; it's a venereal leprosy called Thai-VI. Our black hero, who spends the vast majority of the book on the run from the authorities, who would happily kill him, starts the novel literally underground, saving the lives of members of a group of gay men, who would have been brutally murdered without his help.
And the extremist politician whose key appeal is to evangelical Christians and hate groups, if the two can be separated nowadays, is only standing for the office of president; he hasn't been elected yet. He's also Democrat not Republican though, get this: he's willing to order atrocities to "make this country great again." Yeah, that's a direct quote. Perhaps the only thing a little scarier than that is that Barnes had already had the big one hit the San Andreas before the first book, knocking the Californian coast into the ocean, but maybe that's next month on the Jumanji board.
What's more, the core theme of the book is gender, though it's explored in a different way to the conversation currently in play in society. When Aubry Knight escapes Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Promise, they travel north to Ephesus, Oregon where the Sisterhood have gradually transformed what was initially a retreat for rape victims into a full blown society run entirely by women. They're there because Ephesus is where Promise grew up.
To balance Ephesus, Barnes also introduces the NewMen, who live on a parcel of land leased from the Navajo and are trying to do almost the same thing in reverse. The gay community had found a powerful political voice, found a way into the military, from which gay divisions the Gorgons of the title sprang, and are now attempting to build a male society completely free of women.
These communities are serious. Ephesus has become so freed of any dependence on men that women there reproduce through some sort of genetic cloning, with no men required. The NewMen, on the other hand, have become so free of their dependence on women that the men there are able to reproduce through the use of artificial wombs, with no women required. As you might imagine, the women at Ephesus are primarily, if not entirely, lesbian while NewMen in Monument Valley are predominantly gay.
And then there are the hermaphrodites, who some envisage as the next step in human evolution, but I won't get into that here because that way is spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that duality is a fundamental theme here. Much of what Barnes explores in 'Gorgon Child' has to do with duality, whether it be male/female, gay/straight or even life/death. Barnes treats all of these sides with respect, even Promise's troubled return to Ephesus with not just a man in tow but a very capable and powerful one.
Oddly, given how prescient it seems with regards to the state of the union, it's way off geopolitically. There's talk of Soviets and the rise of a Pan-African nation out of South Africa, while the U.S. is a crippled power, ripe for Sterling DeLacourte to exploit by making America great again. While the political realm is believably corrupt, with DeLacourte holding all the cards over many other politicians, it's done in a science fiction way that surely isn't close to our reality today.
In fact, the way this is approached made me wonder a lot about DeLacourte in directions that I need not have gone. As a TV evangelist, in style if not in reality (my notes don't say that he was), he speaks as if he's been chosen by a higher power. He mentions Satan by name, as if he's a real person that he's talked to. There are hints that he isn't human, like an uncanny ability to multitask, robotic movements when not on air and the fact that he appears to be getting younger. I wondered a lot about who he was when what's really important is just that he's corrupt and defined by what he's against rather than what he's for. Again, so prescient.
While I struggled with 'Street Lethal', I liked this a great deal. It's much less noir, much less men's adventure, much less dystopian cyberpunk future. It's less about tone and mood and more about story and character. And, with characters, including Knight's, growing and developing in interesting ways, I was able to care a lot more. This is the sort of action sf written from a very different cultural perspective to what I knew that I ached for back in the eighties. I should have picked this up much sooner.
The trilogy was completed by 'Firedance' in 1993 but, before that, came two more novels that Barnes wrote with Larry Niven. Next month's review will be of 'Achilles' Choice' and then August's will be the third 'Dream Park' book, 'The California Voodoo Game'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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