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William Barton and Michael Capobianco
Avon EOS Books, 436 pages

William Barton
William Barton has authored a number of single novels including Acts of Conscience and The Transmigration of Souls in addition to those co-authored with Michael Capobianco. Their joint efforts include Iris, Alpha Centauri and Fellow Traveller.

William Barton Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: White Light

Michael Capobianco
Michael Capobianco has one solo science fiction novel, Burster (Bantam 1990). He was born in Washington D.C. in 1950 and graduated from the University of Virginia with a major in Interdisciplinary Studies. For many years he was involved in the development of computer simulations and game software.

Michael Capobianco Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John O'Neill

Independently, Michael Capobianco and William Barton have produced a number of respected novels, but they're chiefly hailed these days for their collaborative works, all well known for both their hard SF tone and frank sexual content. The last three were Fellow Traveller, Alpha Centauri, and White Light, but their freshman effort was Iris, first published in 1990. Now Avon Eos has brought Iris back into print, with a handsome new cover by Chris Moore.

The cover, in fact, neatly communicates the central plot device, depicting five teeny-weeny suited figures trekking across a snowy alien landscape towards a gargantuan craft protruding from the ice. Just so you don't mistake this for an X-Files novelization, there's also a ringed gas giant towering over the scene. Iris is, as advertised, an intriguing novel of exploration, discovery, and ancient alien mystery in the year 2097. Can never have too many, in my book.

I know what some of you are thinking. Hmmm, hard SF. Been a while since I tried it. Stuff causes sterility in lab rats, right?

While that may or may not be true, the real problem with hard SF these days is two-fold. First off, as a genre whose primary concerns revolve around originality of concept and rigorousness of science, it's often saddled with a rep for under-developed (and even unsympathetic) characters. Barton and Capobianco have cast Iris with the 10 scientists and artists of the sub-light ship Deepstar, and they are certainly more skilled in the art of character development than many of their contemporaries. I'm afraid I can't award a lot of points for sympathy, though -- the most well developed member of the crew, software genius and Olympic boxer Brendan Sealock, is one of the most repugnant characters I've encountered in years: a self-absorbed, borderline psychopath and rapist. He's also the lead protagonist, which caused me no end of reader angst.

While few of the other crew members are as off-putting as Sealock, they are perhaps the most unlikely spaceship crew you'll ever encounter. John Cornwell, the wealthy musician who finances and leads the Deepstar expedition to Titan in the hopes of founding a utopian colony, proves utterly incapable of making decisions -- which makes you wonder how he managed to escape Earth's gravity in the first place. Young Aksinia Ockels spends her time doing addictive drugs and wandering the ship's corridors looking for sex. Flawed characters are far more interesting than perfect ones, but this crew is so deeply dysfunctional -- not to mention openly contemptuous of each other -- that it's difficult to believe they could bake a cake together, much less plan and execute the first extra-solar expedition in human history.

But, they do just that. Before the Deepstar reaches Titan, the rogue gas giant Iris and its moons wanders into the solar system, and the ship is diverted to Iris in the hopes that it will prove a more adventurous and rewarding colony site. When one of Iris' moons proves to contain a submerged alien craft, this tiny crew of bickering artists and engineers soon finds itself confronting an ancient -- and very deadly -- alien mystery.

Did I mention the two-fold problem with modern hard SF? Now we're at the second one. Like most science fiction readers I like being challenged, particularly by authors who know their stuff. Barton and Capobianco know their stuff, and they clearly enjoy tossing new concepts and complex ideas at their audience. But they seem to have no clue when to ease up on the throttle. Here's a fairly typical bit of descriptive text from the first chapter:

"The Selenite activated the final reserves of his suit-born resources and tensed as he felt the command/control impulses flood his conscious mind. The rebrace fixture machine was routed through a duodecimal program aspect of Shipnet and, while his handling of the device was suborned to a built-in self-awareness subplot, it took over quite a few reflex responses as well. He walked the machine behind the damaged girder, set its adjustment verniers, and then used a resistance heater to de-blackbody the metal-plastic matrix of the warped region... An angstrom-thin collimated particle beam sliced away the affected area, which adhered to the fixture device and melted, going into a polyclastic state. Stresses were set up and, as the mixture cooled, the proper orthorhombic array reappeared. Simultaneously, calipers pulled the now isolated beam-ends back to zero azimuth."

True hard-SF aficionados will unquestionably eat this stuff up. Apparently I am not one. Me, I had to set the book aside and have a bit of a lie down.

As bothersome as these two quirks may be, they're probably not fatal. Besides, if the dedication page -- in which the authors dedicate their novel to a computer command sub-system -- didn't help prepare you for the road ahead, you deserve what you get. What's harder to get used to is the authors' bizarre obsession with sex. By page 8 over two-thirds of the crew have had sex, and the pace never really lets up. We don't get the first full-fledged orgy until chapter two, but by that time it's practically redundant. Even the aliens, when they finally appear, are having sex in the first 6 pages. During the inevitable flashbacks each of the crew members pasts are revealed, but almost exclusively in terms of sexual history -- which begins as early as age 8, in some cases with parents or siblings.

There's very little that's erotic or even interesting about most of these sexual encounters beyond the first chapter, but they keep coming anyway. Even the shock value of the occasional sexual assaults among the small crew wears off quickly. Although it's clear we're meant to understand that these characters treat sex lightly -- so much so that a woman raped by a stranger is happy to have consensual sex with the same man a few hours later -- I could have dispensed with a dozen graphic, frequently unpleasant, and often boring reminders every chapter.

A fellow reviewer I greatly admire once told me that the ultimate test of his enjoyment of a book is how much time he'd like to spend with the characters. If any of the Deepstar crew wandered into the cafeteria where I eat lunch, I'd pull a paper bag over my head and leave immediately. But despite its deficiencies, Iris still manages to be a compelling narrative. The action moves along briskly, and you'll likely find yourself growing accustomed to the irksome crew and the regular dosage of scientific jargon soon enough. Barton and Capobianco have a flair for describing technology, both human and otherwise. Although Iris was written in 1990, well before the advent of the Web and the rise of the Internet, you'd never be able to tell. The authors exhibit the same poetic infatuation with complex virtual networks as the cyberpunks, only here they serve a plot purpose without overwhelming the narrative. If you enjoy hard science fiction, and are looking for a tale of alien mystery and truly vast scope, you could do worse than Iris.

Copyright © 1999 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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