William Barton Is The Great Unsung Space Opera Writer

Illustration for article titled William Barton Is The Great Unsung Space Opera Writer

Space opera and military science fiction are huge again, but I'm not aware of anybody publishing the type of wonderfully nihilistic space adventures that William Barton used to write in the 1990s. Barton, with occasional co-author Michael Capobianco, put out a dozen books that show how oppression and exploitation aren't crimes that bad people commit — they're part of the fabric of civilization. Here's why you should be hunting down every Barton novel you can find, with spoilers for a couple of his books.

Illustration for article titled William Barton Is The Great Unsung Space Opera Writer

In William Barton's books, the strong exploit the weak — until someone stronger comes along, and exploits them in turn. And the universe rattles on, uncaring. As a character says in Alpha Centauri by Barton and Capobianco, it's do or die — and even if you do, you'll still die anyway. Oh well. My favorite William Barton novel is probably When Heaven Fell, where a cybernetic Master Race takes over Earth and kills eight billion humans. The rest become slaves, soldiers, or mercenaries like the novel's hero Athol Morrison. Athol comes back to Earth after twenty years away, and finds that his high school sweetheart is involved in helping to plan an uprising against the alien overlords. Morrison knows the uprising will probably fail, and then the aliens will retaliate, wiping out what's left of the human race. So after much dithering, he rats out the human resistance to the aliens, in exchange for saving his girlfriend's life.

Illustration for article titled William Barton Is The Great Unsung Space Opera Writer

Later, he gets involved with a more sophisticated resistance effort involving a number of subjugated races. But it seems pretty doomed as well, and in the novel's final twist, we learn that the Master Race didn't come to Earth seeking new realms to conquer — they came here fleeing an even stronger, meaner empire from Andromeda. And now the people who kicked the Master Race's ass are coming to our galaxy. The Master Race will be conquered, and humans will probably end up "the slaves of slaves." (He cites the historical precedent of the Huns smashing the Roman Empire, when the Huns were actually fleeing the stronger Chinese.) The weirdest Barton novel may well be Acts Of Conscience, where the hero (?) Gaetan comes across a planet whose inhabitants include a race called dollies, who happen to be perfectly suited to be sex toys for humans. The Dollies are furry and cute, and look sort of like little girls, but they also secrete hormones that spark arousal in human males. A group of humans want to round up all the Dollies and ship them off to be used by humans, which will wipe out the species in the process. In the most nauseating scene, Gaetan struggles with his conscience (and the nagging voice of his spacesuit) — and then he goes ahead and has sex with a dollie anyway:

Dollie looking up at me out of empty, featureless eyes, as though waiting. I put my hand on its belly, petting soft fur, felt it squirm with what seemed like pleasure, listened to its resumed purr. A cat, they say, does not purr out of pleasure. Humans don't care why it purrs, merely make the assumptions that please them most. No reason to do this. You're just full of alien pheromones, pheromones tricking your reproductive physiology into thinking... hell. Think of it like a nice drug. Like a masturbation aid. Like the vidnet girls. Just get your dick out and take care of yourself, that's all. No one will know but you and the dollies. Who would they tell? Who would care? ... The spacesuit whispered, Gaetan. Shut the fuck up. Go away. I crawled on top of the dollie and just like that, I was in. Wet. Warm. Sticky like raw egg white. Just like a woman. That's it. In. Out. In. Out. The dollie looked up at my face as I fucked it, eyes like bits of glass, purring steadily away, as if I were still only . . .

And after he's done basically raping an alien life form, he starts to cry. (Although I get the impression the dollie doesn't think of what just happened as sex.) And later he finally decides to save the dollies, and the other intelligent life forms on the planet whom the humans have exploited and killed for entertainment. Even if it dooms the human race (at the hands of a vastly more advanced life form) in the process. The scene where the aliens beg for his help is typically cynical. Writes Barton: "How does it feel to be bargaining with the devil? For that matter, how does it feel to be the devil with whom the downtrodden must bargain?" Since the 1990s, Barton hasn't published any more novels, but his stories still appear in Asimov's Science Fiction and other magazines. With the explosion of new publishers like Nightshade and Pyr, putting out new books by other neglected greats like Richard Kadrey, I can't help but hope we'll see another searingly bitter Barton epic again soon.

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Charlie Jane Anders

@Klebert L. Hall: I don't think Barton is a master prose stylist or anything, but sometimes I like his style. He has a habit of piling gerund on top of gerund in a way that's almost musical.