Mother of Storms

John Barnes (Millenium 1994)

1994 was quite a year for 'weather disaster' speculative fiction. Where Bruce Sterling's superb Heavy Weather focussed on the localised disaster of tornados, Barnes most recent novel, Mother of Storms, deals with hurricanes and their catastrophic effect on all corners of the world.

coverBarnes' premise is simple: mankind screws up the environment, causes the seas to heat slightly and creates the conditions for a hurricane that doesnąt blow out, that instead spawns new hurricanes, each wreaking havoc as they roam the oceans of the world. Then, through the eyes of several characters he shows the outcome of mankind's stupidity. This is 'hard' science fiction by most definitions and it exhibits both the benefits and the drawbacks of this sub-genre. Barnes has packed this novel full of science and he manages to make the meteorology of the hurricanes interesting, but, like A Million Open Doors, his previous novel, he veers away from taking the novel to its natural conclusion, where mankind is helpless in the face of Mother Nature, and instead introduces an absurd subplot, jammed full of unbelievable science to 'save the day'.

Initially, I was extremely impressed by Mother of Storms. In the earlier parts of the book, Barnes seems to be able to balance the fine line between too much science and too little, and he introduces characters with subtlety and finesse. His characters are diverse and he manages to draw each of the protagonists better than most other hard SF writers seem able. In addition, he uses short character sketches to focus on the human scale of the hurricane disaster and the fatalities it causes.

The setting for this novel is not terribly original but effective enough: the UN is more powerful than currently; there are many more smaller states seceded from larger ones ‹ following the current trend ‹ and the media is even more influential on a greater number of people. From this, Barnes has created plots and subplots which twist and weave, bringing together the characters into a sort of coherency. Unfortunately this 'master plot' is seriously flawed and by the end of the novel, I was left feeling disappointed. In addition, with the plots becoming more complicated (though never over-obscure) there was a lot of rather pointless subplots, included, I assume, to add colour to some of the characters, which were, instead, rather irritating padding. Add to this the 'way-out' mentioned before (the old story of man turning into superhuman to save the day); and pages of turgid exposition of a kind I find particularly inept, and I found that I was skimming pages and pages and then reading and being gripped by others. This is novel writing at its most patchy.

In defence of Mother of Storms, I did greatly enjoy parts of it, especially when Barnes was concentrating on characters rather than the hard science. I know I am biased: I prefer people to science any day, and I am sure many hard SF lovers will love this novel and positively delight in the more ludicrous science but there is a balance that can be reached ‹ indeed Barnes did in the earlier parts of the novel ‹ that more experienced writers, like Sterling, can consistently keep between character and plot, and I think Barnes has some way to go. I think he will get there, that Mother of Storms is a taster for better to come, but in itself is not a terribly good novel.

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