Mother of Storms (1994) by John Barnes

MotherofStorms1It’s an interesting experience to pair John Barnes 1994 multiple award-nominated Mother of Storms with Ian McDonald’s 2004 multiple award-nominated River of Gods. I read both during the same week, alternating between books in order to avoid story fatigue, and found the structural similarities uncanny, and the differences, including my reactions to each, vast.

It’s 2028, and a baby nuke explosion in polar ice (for a reality T.V. show, I think, but I’m not quite clear on it, to be honest) releases clathrate compounds that form a monster hurricane that spawns more monster hurricanes. People die. The tale follows a number of characters including: a vengeful dad, a reality T.V. hottie, a cardboard college boy and his activist girlfriend, a weather scientist, an astronaut in space, his weather scientist wife in the ocean, a businessman, and the president and vice president of the United States, as they seek to either solve the problem, save themselves, or profit from the disaster.

It sounds completely different from the super-tech, culture rich exploration of McDonald’s India in River of Gods, but allow me to list the similarities of these two speculative collages:

  • Near future
  • Multi-character
  • Mature female Head of State
  • Second-in-command with a shameful secret
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Astronaut
  • Weather issues
  • Enhanced television entertainment with a devoted audience
  • Romantic relationship between boss and underling
  • Salacious sex
  • Greedy business dealings
  • Riots

But while McDonald weaves these bullet points into a tapestry of nuance, texture, and inventive concepts, Barnes’ bullet points remain bullet points. They form the schema of perfunctory intrigue in this weather-inspired filler-thriller.

So while both novels are made of similar parts, McDonald’s forest is greener. (And like Neapolitan ice cream, that sentence is mixed with three flavors of metaphor! Happy summer!)

MotherofStorms2That’s not to say that Barnes always takes his basket to the anticipated picnic table, but it still has ants all over it. (what?) Let’s talk about Randy Householder, whose daughter was raped (with a broomstick) and murdered (hung by her bra) for a snuff film commissioned by insert character with a shameful secret. Randy is completely obsessed with hunting down the people behind this film, so he watches the film of his raped daughter all the time in his self-driving car as he crosses the country questioning people about it.

Okay.

So now, let’s talk about Jesse, the preppie college kid with a hot hippie girlfriend who won’t have sex with him because sex will make her “selfish and centered and linear!” (loc. 2135). (You know how liberal women are so stuck up and no fun.) So he’s obsessed with having sex with his girlfriend to the point where [real quotes coming, get ready], “he wants to just turn into a caveman, drag Naomi out of here bodily, heave her into his Lectrajeep…” (loc. 139) and his roommate suggests, “’just rape her and get over it, Jess, wouldn’t that be simpler?’” (loc. 265) so, “The next several times he had sex with Naomi he couldn’t stop fantasizing that he was raping her” (loc. 265).

(and this is where I would insert a pop culture GIF of an actress looking surprised, confused, and bit a creeped out, and then a lot creeped out.)

Okay, so sex play and bdsm and all that yadda yadda yadda that people like, but seriously? This is our protagonist? Unless… oh, I see where this might be going…

Prediction: Jesse will become a rapist and get wrapped up in this snuff tape ring and somehow lead Randy Householder to justice for his daughter (after he’s watched all those snuff tapes).

Erm, no. Instead, Jesse goes to Mexico to teach engineering to underprivileged students to impress his uptight hippie girlfriend. (Forget the fact that Mexico has engineering professors and they certainly don’t want some good for nothing ugly American undergrad teaching ENGINEERING. Wtf.) But he meets Synthi Venture, the sexy real-time news correspondent who has sex on camera while relating the news via brain feed, and her body has been totally remade to look sexy. (I mean, her boobs are bigger than her head and they ache like all the time– the narrative keeps reminding us.) But she likes Jesse, so they go back to her place and have wild, sadistic sex and Synthi hurts Jesse so bad during sex (even though we don’t really get a clear picture of what she does to him, though we certainly get a clear picture of what he does to her) so he punches her in the anus.

Prediction: Now, Jesse will become a rapist and get wrapped up in this snuff tape ring and somehow leads Randy Householder to justice for his daughter (after he’s watched all those snuff tapes).

Erm, no. Jesse and Synthi end up liking each other a lot, so they quit the sadistic sex and hang out for the rest of the book, hiking around Mexico to avoid inclement weather.

MotherofStorms3And storms happen. And President Grandma (yes, they call her that) doesn’t know what to do about it, so she puts her Number One on the case, but he’s hiding a dark secret in his basement, and then there’s this chillax business guy who moves his company (and his female staff/girlfriend) to Siberia and makes a deal with this Siberian mogul guy, and the whole thing sounds pretty rotten. Oh, and there’s this guy in space watching the radar, and his wife is on her yacht watching the radar, and the AI of the space station downloads into their brains and they die (or vice versa?), so they become part of the AI so they’re still alive, so they concoct some way to neutralize the clathrates and kill the storms, and they communicate to the world via the brain feed TV thing that Synthi does. And Jesse’s brother is a big weather guru who advises President Grandma, but he gets murdered in a traffic jam, which is later determined to be a mistake of the enemies in Siberia. Jesse’s brother’s wife is a mystery writer.

Prediction: We do get find out what’s on the other snuff tapes.

Prediction: This is going to be a terrible book.

Bottom line, people die. A billion people die. Hawaii dies. And we never feel it.

It’s a filler-thriller that tries to be provocative, but the clownish elements distract from the central conflict. Go to Ian McDonald for a dense multi-character story with weather, culture, technology, intrigue, and spicy sex.

And, if you’re looking for disaster fic, I recommend Fritz Leiber’s 1964 The Wanderer for a more entertaining depiction of shallow, provocative characters running around in uncontrollable circumstances.

Mother of Storms is published by Tor. 🙂

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13 thoughts on “Mother of Storms (1994) by John Barnes

  1. Jesse says:

    I was going to say that “filler-thriller” was the best line of this review, but then I read the last… (cue 50s advertizing voice) “Happily filling shelves with mass-produced genre consumables for decades, it’s Tor!” What may be better is that Tor.com features only articles and reviews with progressive, left-leaning views, all the while in Tor’s publishing house books like you describe above are pumped out by the thousands. I believe that may be the very definition of playing both sides against the middle.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Filler-thriller: I’ve been stretching for a good label for this type of fiction and that’s the best I can come up with so far.

      I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and one if the first lessons I learned was to approach all Baen and Tor books with trepidation. I can usually count on them both to provide relatively poor reading experiences. Funny that they are sort of acknowledged as representing different political ideologies, because books from both houses seem to espouse traditional values, or, as in this case, commercial risqué-ness, rather than anything progressive or cutting edge. And the style of genre they both promote is so similar: cut-and-paste- tropes, heavy on pointless dialogue, manipulated up-and-down plot cycle.

      That last line has been part of several draft reviews, but I always end up deleting it because it sounds so snooty, and I do try to review Tor and Baen books fairly and from that audience perspective. I couldn’t help myself this time, though. This book was ridiculous and insulting.

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  2. This book, WTF!?!?! Once again Megan saves us all from reading the ugly books.

    I’m with Jesse on filler-thriller being an awesome term. But what happened to the sentence that Jesse quotes? Did you delete it? Or am I just blind and not finding it. Probably that. But it is interesting and until reading Jesse’s comment just now, I never even noticed that about Tor. I noticed that their website was very left, and I noticed that I never, ever (almost, I am sure I must have ONE on my shelf somewhere) read any of the novels they published. Never thought more about it, but, yeah, that would pretty much explain that huh?

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Jesse’s quote is just a paraphrase of my last line– he’s reading between the lines. I was being coy, but I knew he of all people would get my message.

      Because I’m reading the Hugo list, I have read too. much. Tor. Sometimes it’s light, bland entertainment, boring, stale, contrived. Most of the time it’s not very progressive. Sometimes, like this time, it’s insanely, fucking backwards.

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      • Ah, I see. Well, well paraphrased. I worried that some Tor lover had maybe gone a’trolling on you and you had changed it to be a more subtle version of Jesse’s paraphrase in order to avoid googling.

        I am always amazed at what focused reading lists can get you to read, without giving up halfway every single time. When is the last time in memory you DNF’d something?

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Fortunately, this blog doesn’t attract much garbage, and people who tend to love and support Tor tend to have good hearts and prefer to politely ignore my headstrong bs, or they just don’t know this blog.

          My last DNF was Heinlein’s TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. Before that, it was Bujold’s THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE, although I kept telling myself I would get back to it. Not a bad book like Heinlein’s bullshit, but Bujold just isn’t what I dig. But I just learned that I can tolerate Bujold best by audio.

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  3. marzaat says:

    You make the novel sound so tawdry.

    ‘Cause it kind of was, now that you mention it. My memory only retained that there was a specific temperature for hurricane formation, the clathrate bit, and some kind of march that changed the world at the end.
    Are you using Broderick and Di Filippo’s “Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels” for your reading list? A lot of your recent review titles, including this one, are in that book.

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  4. Mother of Storms is published by Tor. 🙂
    It’s Tor, Tor, it’s big it’s heavy it’s wood.

    I get that they’re trying to be the MSNBC to Baen’s Fox News with their blog posts and featured authors, but they tend to publish a lot of mainstream, commercialized pap. Then again, maybe I’m just bitter that I read most of their bloated never-ending fantasy series when I was young and naive and thought I liked such things.

    I assume there’s quite a few good books that they publish — the new Kit Reed is on my list — but I’d rather let someone else sift the wheat from the chaff. Or sort out the filler-thrillers from the important books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’m bitter just based on everything I have read from them. I can get on the Tor-level, and kind of enjoy things like MOVING MARS or REDSHIRTS or AMONG OTHERS or even THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, really I can– at the Tor- level– but then I look at those award nominations and I wonder, “is that really the best SF had to offer that year? The best?” And then I look at how small the voting pool is, and how large Tor is, and how easy it is for Tor to promote over smaller publishing houses, and I just have to wonder if there is an unfair advantage. And then I see how they have publicized themselves as welcoming diverse, innovative fiction, yet they give the whitest male loudmouth in SF a ten-year publishing deal, and continue to publish the other whitest male loudmouth in SF while remaining silent about his dubious domination of the current Hugo ballot, and then cowering before the whitestest male loudmouth in SF when he threatens a weak lawsuit.

      The hypocrisy of this company just pisses me off.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “[S]o he punches her in the anus.” hehehehehe

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] difficult moral quandaries by making them easy, fun to read, and not really a big deal. And Mother of Storms is a kitchen sink filler-thriller about superficial character cliches surviving a global weather […]

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