It’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
- Mature female Head of State
- Second-in-command with a shameful secret
- Artificial Intelligence
- Weather issues
- Enhanced television entertainment with a devoted audience
- Romantic relationship between boss and underling
- Salacious sex
- Greedy business dealings
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!)
That’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.
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.
And 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.