by John Barnes
Tor, 2000, $22.95, 237 pp
I’d put this one off for a couple of years because I wasn’t ready for another dose of Barnes’ dark pessimism. My fears, however, were unfounded – this is quite a good piece of SF.
It’s set in a somewhat odd future which diverged from ours sometime in the 80s when a highly contagious forms of AIDS started to spread. Some sort of nasty war (called the EuroWar) around 2005 is ended by Papal intervention and – somehow – the Pope becomes the dominant world political figure for the next 30 years. But when the Pope dies, the War of the Papal Succession breaks out and plunges the whole world into chaos. Cute. The War of the Papal Succession mutates into the Meme War which nearly ends civilization.
The nature of Memes is central to the story and Barnes has played more than a little with the classical notion of a meme. A meme is an idea or a cluster of ideas which hold together so well that they propagate through human populations. (I think the idea is due to Richard Dawkins) In a sense, a meme is an idea virus. Memes can be complicated things like religions or simple things like catch-phrases from popular TV shows.
Successful memes by definition tend to spread either because their hosts are more successful and themselves spread or because people who are infected by a successful meme are impelled to spread the meme by proselytization or force. (Not all memes are like that, but natural selections quickly eliminates those which aren’t driven to reproduce.)
Barnes takes that base idea of a meme and extends it from being metaphorically a virus to being actually a mental virus which can be active as a separate intelligence. Needless to say, this isn’t what memes are at all, but it’s a clever idea. (Perhaps I’m just too bothered by the use of the word ‘meme’ and would have been happier if he’d used the term ‘mental virus’ or something.)
The description of the rise and spread of the memes is great – they earliest were crude things which were created by people for the purpose of winning converts – more like cannon fodder, actually – for their side in War of the Papal Succession. Better and better memes were developed and soon even their creators were taken over by their own creations. Dr. Frankenstein, anyone?
The world of Candle is perhaps 30 years after the horrible Meme Wars ended with the victory of One True, a highly intelligent meme which crushed the rest and infected every human on Earth. Since its victory, One True has withdrawn somewhat, but still controls nearly everyone on Earth, editing their emotions and rewriting their memories as needed to restore the damage of all those years of war.
Currie Curran is a cowboy hunter. A cowboy is a human who has escaped infection by One True and who exists in the wild – and there’s a lot of wild out there with the human population way down. The cowboy hunters are sent out by One True to locate them and infect them, bringing them into the sheep-fold of controlled humanity.
Curran is called out of retirement by One True to track Lobo, the legendary last cowboy long thought to have died a decade earlier.
Barnes as done a superb job of showing how people live with One True’s agent in their heads and how Curran tracks and locates and begins to understand the last cowboy.
And there’s a happy and not implausible ending!