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February 2007
Locus Magazine
John Barnes: Patterndriven
John Barnes was born in Indiana, attended Washington University in St. Louis, and worked as a systems analyst before becoming more serious about his writing, entering the MFA program at the University of Montana in 1984. He has degrees in political science and drama and a PhD in Theatre Arts. He currently works in Denver as a statistical semiotician.

Barnes's first story was "Manuel's Tears" (1982), which became part of his first novel The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky (1986), followed by Sin of Origin (1988). A Million Open Doors (1992), began his Giraut series, which also includes Earth Made of Glass (1999), The Merchants of Souls (2002), and The Armies of Memory (2006).

The Century Next Door series began with
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Locus Online links for John Barnes:
awards nominations | bibliographic pages
Nebula and Tiptree nominee Orbital Resonance (1991) and continued with Kaleidoscope Century (1995), Candle (2000), and The Sky So Big and Black (2002). His Timeline Wars series includes Patton's Spaceship (1997), Washington's Dirigible (1997), and Caesar's Bicycle (1997). The Jak Jinnaka series includes The Duke of Uranium (2002), A Princess of the Aerie (2003), and In the Hall of the Martian King (2003).

Other standalone novels are Mother of Storms (1994), a Hugo, Clarke, and Nebula nominee; Mythopoeic nominee One for the Morning Glory (1996); Finity (1999); and Campbell Memorial Award finalist Gaudeamus (2004). He collaborated with Buzz Aldrin on Encounter with Tiber (1996) and The Return (2000), and his short fiction was collected in Apocalypses & Apostrophes (1999). Mainstream YA Tales of the Madman Underground is forthcoming, as is SF YA Eenie Meanie Miney Moe. He also plans a final book in the Giraut series, A Far Cry.
Excerpts from the interviews:

“My next project is a book that took me a long time to write. It's a mainstream YA, Tales of the Madman Underground, set in small-town Ohio of the 1970s, and I hasten to add it's not terribly autobiographical, though there are things swiped from my life and the lives of my friends. One of the odd things that happened in those days was that school psychiatry was kind of new and teachers decided who went to group counseling. It would be there in your file that you'd been in group counseling the year before, so the minute you did something weird, your teachers would send you back into it. The result was that once you were in group therapy, you were in forever. I think I was a messed up enough kid that I probably belonged there, but there were plenty of kids who didn't. They paid school shrinks almost nothing, so the therapists would change three, four, five times a year. So my novel centers around this bunch of kids dealing with constantly rotating shrinks, and with caring for the people in the group who really do need help and can't get it anywhere except from the other troubled kids. With the stigma of mental illness still severe at that time, your best friends are people you can't admit are your friends.

“I am really pattern-driven, and there's an underlying pattern in the Giraut books. If you look at the structure, each is three novellas and a coda that's basically a long short story. Each novella widens and complicates the themes of the one or two before it, and then the short coda weaves all three themes into a conclusion. The original intent was to mirror that pattern in the series as a whole by doing three long novels and a short one, but Earth Made of Glass and The Merchants of Space turned out to be one enormous book that had to be split in two. (I think I'm psychologically unsuited to cut things enough.) The one to come, A Far Cry, is going to be short. Really. This time I mean it.”


“I like the patterns I find in other people's work too. For instance, to prepare for my Jak Jinnaka space opera trilogy, I took all the Heinlein juveniles and marked them up, and discovered a pattern that underlies every one of the juveniles, but none of the adult novels except The Number of the Beast: every 25,000 words, Heinlein would paint his hero into a complete corner where the only reasonable conclusion was 'And then he died.' or something equally miserable. Then just as Our Hero stood with his back to the corner waiting to be killed or enslaved or eaten or whatever, he'd hit the reader with a Life of Brian moment –as in that spot in the movie where Brian falls from a high tower and suddenly lands on the back of an alien spaceship, there's five minutes of this pointless incomprehensible space battle, and then he's dumped back on the streets of Jerusalem. Of course in a Heinlein novel it would turn into a space opera for another 25,000 words until Our Hero was in some other corner, or it was time to tack on some quick lame ending for the book as a whole.

“If you're a fast-reading, obsessive kid, 25,000 words is about three hours' reading, so every reading session is likely to build up to this climactic exciting moment just before (or just a tiny bit beyond) the moment when Mom calls you for supper or your father yells at you to mow the lawn.

“And that's how I did the Jinnaka books. They are multiples of 25,000 words, and they all have that rhythm. And it still works on children over forty. There was so much nice fan mail about it from older fans, but that's the trouble. It turns out it's not the rhythm for today's kids, or I didn't play it the way they want it played. Maybe I'll squeeze in the time to do some statistical semiotic studies on what kids today do want to read and try to see how I can make SF fit into that, but I can at least tell you, the Heinlein rhythm ain't it.”


“Every century starts late, after we stop looking back to the previous one. The 19th century starts with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and it's incredibly obvious the 20th started in August 1914, but I would say this century started relatively early -- its critical time was January 2006. Three critical things happened then. First of all, Sharon had his stroke, so you have a situation where the United States now doesn't have a solid proxy in the Middle East. The Sharon government might have pulled together enough of its act to be the American enforcer and stop the nuclear weapons program in Iran, but now (one way or another) we're in for good there, up to the elbows and trying to keep our necks out. The second was the publication of a fascinating paper in Nature that seems to show there really is some working science in the rotating superconductor effects, better known as 'that crazy antigravity stuff' and probably more accurately called Heim physics, since Heim is the guy who worked out how and why it might work, and what some of its implications are. It may be the door to the stars. Heim physics is a mildly alternate physics and it does explain and predict some experimental results our physics hasn't been able to. In its own way it might be as profound as the quantum and relativity theory that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. The last thing is, Sony brought out the device with the e-paper screen. E-paper is intrinsically cheap, it's pleasant to the eye, and it's the first hint of what our text medium is going to be. These three things, all falling together: that's your cue to the 21st century. They're all harbingers.”


“In the Jak Jinnaka and the Giraut series, my running joke is they only remember the 20th century the way we remember the eighth. It's not that they don't have any records, but there's been so much other history that they don't find us terribly important and muddle things together. In the latest Giraut book, he mentions his favorite pirate movie, Admiral Nelson on Iwo Jima, with those scenes of Vikings wading ashore in their horned helmets and frogman suits, clutching their tommy guns. (I love that trick, and I learned it from Poul Anderson's story 'Superstition'.) We see the same kind of muddle all the time with Hollywood medieval movies, and I think the Hollywood spirit is here to stay.”

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