© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
Sky So Big And Black
by John Barnes
Not since Heinlein's Podkyane of Mars has the Red Planet given us a spunky high frontier girl this memorable. Terri, that is, Teripsichore Murray, is in her late teens, growing up in the Martian outback and lives a rugged existence with her dad prospecting for gasses and minerals that can be mined or released into the atmosphere to further the terraforming of Mars.
The Sky So Big And Black is more or less a sequel to Candle. It takes place on Mars, not Earth, but it's in the same story universe, the one where a computer virus name One True crossed over the man/machine interface and took over all of humanity on Earth. Light speed lag has let the off world colonies keep it out, except for occasional Trojan horse transmissions, but humanity off Earth is all that's left of free thought. Unless government is just a clumsy version of a virus itself.
Living out of environment suits and roaming the unexplored sands of Mars is a life Terri's always known and loved, but changes are coming her way fast, and soon she'll be dealing with challenges that are beyond anything she's encountered before. Like adulthood, personal tragedy and maybe even an invasion of the body snatchers.
The story is told mostly in flashback through the recordings stored by a therapist back in a Martian city. It starts with him getting a call from Terri saying she needs to talk, and goes on from there with him reviewing the case on tape...and opening a case or two booze on his own as he slogs through his doubts about what he does.
"Therapy", in Barnes' story, consists of memory erasure. First the patient comes in and talks themselves out on tape so that they can fill in the gaps, then they get selective memory wipes taking them back to just before whatever bad thing happened that messed them up.
Sounds pretty gruesome, doesn't it? Well, nobody seems to mind too much. At least afterwards. But we figure out the process pretty early on, and it makes the rest of the book feel more than a bit weird. We know Terri lives through all the things she has to deal with, and they're pretty daunting things, but she's made of the right stuff for survival. It's not surprising that she'd live through her challenges, including a trek across Martian badlands with damaged equipment and a dead navigation system, but you also know that "this" Terri is going to get erased, right back to page one, or page twenty two in her case. So you know she doesn't survive as well. And like her therapist, you can't help but like her. And feel bad about it.
Why perform such radical memory surgery? Is it for the patient's own good, or are there bigger stakes?
Barnes sets up thought provoking dilemmas, adds interesting and thoughtful characters, and then stirs action and adventure in liberally, coming up with some engaging and thought provoking SF. He doesn't make everything neat and tidy for us at the end, but that may not be a bad thing, as it leaves us wondering about it long after the book is over.
Teripsichore Murray may not remember the person she became when the world fell apart around her, but you won't soon forget.
|Ernest Lilley is Editor and Publisher of SFRevu. He also writes about technology in his publication TechRevu (www.techrevu.com) as well as being a frequent contributor in online and print publications like Byte.com, Digital Camera, Pen Computing and others. He likes station wagons with stick shifts, PDA's with keyboards, and SF with ideas.|