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Apostrophes & Apocalypses
John Barnes
Tor Books, 349 pages

Design: 12E Design
Apostrophes & Apocalypses
John Barnes
John Barnes was born in 1957. He received his BA and MA in political science from Washington University, then worked as a systems analyst and in various kinds of computer consulting, mostly reliability math and human interfaces. He received a dual Master's degree (MFA English (Writing), MA Theatre (Directing) from the University of Montana in 1988. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh (Theatre Arts) in 1995; his specialties were performance semiotics and design/tech. From 1994 to 2001 he taught theatre, rhetoric, and communications at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. He now lives in downtown Denver, writing and consulting fulltime; he may be the only paid consulting semiotician in the world, since he has not met or heard of any others. He has been married and divorced twice, which is quite enough for anybody.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by James Seidman

Apostrophes & Apocalypses is John Barnes's first collection of short stories and essays. A good collection can be a delightful thing to read. It's wonderful to see the best an author has to offer, and see how his style has developed over time. Unfortunately, Apostrophes & Apocalypses seems more like an attempt to make money without doing any work, by simply tossing together whatever Barnes happened to have lying around.

The collection includes several short stories that were published in magazines like Asimov's in the 80s. I remember reading many of these stories at the time, and enjoying them tremendously. They're still creative and well written, but mostly very dated. They largely deal with what were once plausible futures like the Soviets winning the Cold War, or a theocratic takeover of the USA. Barnes even acknowledges in his comments that the stories seem dated. While reading these provides an interesting look back at the fears of a previous decade, the impact of these stories has been diminished by time. This will be particularly true for younger readers who have less personal experience will the period.

Other stories appear in Apostrophes & Apocalypses for the first time. This isn't because Barnes wrote new material for the book, but rather because he used stories that he could never get past a magazine editor. In his comments for each of these stories he provides an excuse for why the story was never accepted. The first story in the book, "Gentleman Pervert, Off on a Spree," falls into this category, and at 63 pages is by far the longest work included.

According to Barnes, "Gentleman Pervert" never found a home because he changed the ending every time he submitted it to an editor. It's a tale of a man whose addiction to prostitutes has led him to lose his wife and job, as well as his chance of continued freedom once his parole is reviewed. He unwittingly winds up in an unconventional form of therapy where he has sex while wired to the woman's head so that he and she can share each other's feelings. It's a dark, explicit story that, while not bad, isn't that good either. The ending Barnes chose for this version is also quite weak.

Another example of a never-before-published story is "Bang On!" which purports to be an alternate-history story about Columbus. Barnes' excuse here is that he tried to get it published in 1992, a year in which there was a definite surplus of Columbus stories. The premise is that the characters know and resent that they're being manipulated to create a story. It include such "humorous" elements as King Ferdinand wondering why he speaks English, characters worrying about being killed off because they're not important enough to have names, and deliberate anachronisms. It's basically a one-joke story that gets boring after about two of its 21 pages. I suspect that the editors rejected it because it's simply a bad story.

The essays are by far the best part of this book. They discuss Barnes' creative process, how he creates universes, his analysis of writing style, and the importance of science fiction to him growing up. Even though some of these essays are fairly old, his non-fiction writing definitely stands the test of time and remains fascinating reading. These essays, along with a few true gems of stories, are what carries the rest of Apostrophes & Apocalypses.

This is a book that serious Barnes fans will still want to read to understand his creative process and see stories they haven't before. However, the casual reader will likely be disappointed by the work.

Copyright © 1999 James Seidman

James Seidman is a busy technology manager at a Fortune 100 company, who needs the excuse of doing book reviews to give himself time to read. He lives with his wife, daughter, two dogs, and 35 fish in Naperville, Illinois.

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