The Sky So Big and Black by John Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Sky So Big and Black is a sci fi novel by John Barnes that is good, not great. Above average. Interesting, intriguing, mysterious, fairly well told in a now somewhat common, but perhaps then unique way. It has some frightening aspects to it and some scary things to consider.
The setting is Mars, one of the Earth’s colonies. Mars has been settled by four waves of settlers from Earth, which is now a place to be avoided because it has been taken over by a monster meme (basically a giant computer virus) called One True and it has small versions of itself called Resuna it’s sending to Mars, trying to infect everyone there and take over that planet too. Some people wonder if that might not be a good thing, actually, because the new versions of Resuna seem peaceful and want to “help” people, make them happy, ease their stress. Or so it seems.
The story begins with the reflections of a cop/psychologist reviewing videos of interviews he did with a very young woman named Teri, an “ecospector” with her father. Ecospectors help terraform Mars and in doing so, they “roo” around the planet. They are individualists.
Something terrible has apparently happened to Teri, or so we’re told by the shrink, but we only find out as he watches video after video in a drunken stupor. He likes Teri a lot and wants to help her, but worries she may be beyond help now.
Teri has been hoping she would pass a test to let her become certified as a “Full Adult,” meaning she would have opportunities young people and people who don’t pass that test have. Her father wants her to remain in school and continue her education. It’s a bone of contention between them. She is also engaged to another ecospector who is a total loser and who, when she gets together with him at an ecospector annual “Gather,” she finds has gotten married behind her back.
Meanwhile, Teri and her dad think they have hit on the “scorehole” of all scoreholes, one that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Meanwhile, memes keep bombarding Mars and the planetary defenses do their best to kill them before they do any damage.
She and her dad have some kids along with them, friends of the family, out in the wilderness at this scorehole when her dad suddenly dies, leaving her in charge. But communications are suddenly cut out and they can’t contact or be contacted by anyone on the planet. What to do?
There’s a certain phrase one must say out loud in order to allow this meme to invade your mind and take over. One of the children uses the acronym for it over and over, thus making it impossible for the others not to think about that phrase. It’s frightening.
The ending is nearly predictable, but is also at the same time a bit of a shock, because things are much, much worse than the reader realizes. The conclusion of the book leaves you with some small hope, and it better, since this is part of a series, but the damage was too great for me to ignore. It’s frankly a bit open-ended.
One of the things that irritated me about this book is typical of Barnes. He uses other languages in his books. In one I just finished, he used Portuguese, or some variation of it. I don’t know what he uses in this book. It, too, could be Portuguese. It could be anything. Many of the words and phrases are simply made up and he never translates these in his books, assuming for some stupid reason, that the reader can figure it out on their own. At times, you can. At others, you can’t. After reading the whole book, I feel like I think “rooing” is a mode of transportation on Mars, but I still have no damn picture in my mind of what the hell it actually is! And this annoys the hell out of me. So, one star off for that. It’s too pervasive to skip. Otherwise, the plot is pretty good, the character development above average, the tension feels real, the dialogue, what you can understand of it, seems nearly decent. Not a bad book. I like Barnes, even though he has flaws. Four stars. Recommended.