by John Barnes
Imagine the differences in culture between the time of sailing ships taking months to cross the oceans and jet aircraft taking merely hours. This transition happened slowly, but imagine it happening over night and you have some idea of the basis of this novel. Now, it is hundreds of years into the future. A massive colonial diaspora has spread Earth's cultures to a thousand nearby planets, each with its own founding cultural vision. Again, imagine Hedonists on one planet, a martial culture on another, still another with corporate money-making ingrained in its religion. Hundreds of years later, as these planets have terraformed and evolved to their own vision, introduce instantaneous interstellar travel. Here, on Nou Occitan, based upon the traditions of medieval European troubadors, there is a culture of chivalry and art that is in itself somewhat decadent. Giraut is a popular troubador, and he gets the chance to travel to the planet Nansen, where the culture is the polar opposite, restricting art (and many other things) as irrational. Giraut's adventure on Nansen includes his own form of cultural exposure. He opens a school of Occitan culture, which becomes a subversive force. One coup and numerous trade transactions later, Nansen is joining the community of worlds. This is, overall a fairly good story of cultural alienation. It is just mildly entertaining and somewhat frustrating. Giraut is supposed to be a romantic troubador, a song-writer and a rake. Barnes manages to give him almost no artistic tendencies, though, seeming satisfied with a few occasional asides that Giraut is writing a song before bed. But there are no songs. This character is woefully incomplete. However, Barnes does manage to treat other characters with surprising sympathy, and his story is pretty interesting. This isn't high art, though, and there are too many convenient plot twists (i.e. Barnes sends his main characters off on a mostly pointless camping trip just as pertinent upheavals happen offstage). A mostly light entertainment. This universe of human cultures does seem to have more story-telling potential.
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