Most of what sits on the Science Fiction section bookshelf these days is fairly predictable. There are categories. Urban fantasy. Steampunk. Heinlein teen novels for adults. Dystopian space operas. Space Cop sagas. But John Barnes is an offbeat writer whose work is usually hard to categorize. How do you categorize Kaleidoscope Century, Finity or A Million Open Doors? But that lack of categorization has probably held Barnes back from also being a successful writer.
Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero look a lot more successful because they’re easy to categorize in the glancing way that a genre plot usually is. We all know what’s going to be in an end of the world novel or a teenage girl in love with a vampire novel. The contents are the details of a known quantity. And that is and isn’t true of the Daybreak series.
Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero are part political thriller, end of the world survivalist tale and speculative futuristic semiotics. In terms of interest level, it goes something like 3, 1 and 2, but in terms of content, it’s more like 2, 1, 3 so that there’s a whole lot of scenes about people trying to maintain and rebuild civilization after its collapse, a lot of political wrangling and not a lot about the emergence of a meme.
The story is simple enough. A group calling itself Daybreak operates out of an online community (Barnes calls it an online game at one point but never describes it) and then uses everything from nanotechnology to nuclear bombs to wipe out civilization and then forms into stone age tribes to wipe out the human race. But the group is really run by a meme.
The concept of a meme war trilogy would have been a lot more interesting and plausible set in a framework of modern tech, but instead the Daybreak series follows its usual bunch of characters from these types of novels (the plucky female FBI agent, the nerdy programmer, the stiff government official, the creative journalist) through the end of the technological world and the beginning of a 19th Century broken America.
Barnes has never done characters well. They always fall into the category of being almost, but not quite there, and the Daybreak novels are no different. The civilization story has been done too many times and Barnes doesn’t have much new to offer there, especially since he’s covering a lot of the ground that S.M. Stirling just covered. It’s Daybreak that’s interesting and it’s what we see the least of.
The politics are occasionally interesting, because while Barnes never really makes his heroes come to life, he does better with the secondary characters who populate the political background. They’re still types, but they’re also flawed ambitious people with good and bad instincts trying to do the right thing, which makes them more real and more interesting than his main characters.
There’s some politics of the current kind, but Barnes balances out both sides so it never turns into a preaching contest, and after taking the requisite amount of shots at tree-huggers and bible-thumpers, spends more of it looking at the political system and the consequences of handing out that kind of power to people. Unlike his main characters, the presidents and players behave with human unpredictably. They’re born out of stereotypes, but occasionally transcend them. The naive Liberal Vice-President dies foiling a terrorist attack and the fanatical Christian candidate turns into a moderate leader in the middle of a crisis.
Still that’s not a show that really is worth showing up for. Daybreak however is and while Directive 51 doesn’t provide enough Daybreak, Daybreak Zero does begin showing the bigger picture and some of the bigger ideas that we would expect in this kind of story.
An end of the world story is only as good as its apocalypse and the Daybreak Zero has a very human and inhuman apocalypse at its center as the online community becomes a global terrorist network and then a genocidal stone age cult that turns its old online programming into a tribal play and replaces instant message flash mobs with spirit stick barbarians. It’s a compelling concept that is never developed all the way, but that the success of the first two novels will hopefully enable Barnes to more fully execute in The Last President.