Acts of Conscience

After reading his thoroughly depressing, disturbing, and memorable When Heaven Fell, I decided William Barton might be one of those authors whose entire output is worth reading.

You will be getting some reviews of his stuff in the future — but not When Heaven Fell which I didn’t review.

We’ll start with this retro review from April 30, 2008 …

(Of course, this is another reading project I haven’t actually completed yet.)

Review: Acts of Conscience, William Barton, 1997.Acts of Conscience

Gaetan du Cheyne is a bit of a loser. A mechanic on starships, he’s no randier than many a male, but he can’t keep any of his many lovers. In fact, apart from the artificial intelligences inhabiting his spacesuit and work tools, he doesn’t have any friends. But he does have a bit of luck when corporate intrigue and technological progress put one of the first faster than light starships in his possession.

He heads out to the colony world of his childhood dreams, Green Heaven. And there he finds a world of great beauty, women he wants to bed, his first friend, and aliens being hunted to extinction and exploited in other ways.

That the threatened aliens turn out to be sentient will come as no surprise given that the book is dedicated to H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy series which dealt with the same topic. The theme of exploitation, especially of a sexual nature, is something of specialty with Barton, so we get the dollies – little “cowgirl” aliens who look like small, velvet covered women, their pheromones and anatomy making them irresistible sexual toys for men. And it is this race, enmeshed in a terrible relationship with another sentient race on Green Heaven, and Gaetan’s feelings about it, which are the moral pivots of this novel. Gaetan’s alien friend, a rogue member of a race capable of a telepathic-like rapport with other life – including the ones they literally suck the life juices out of, turns out to have secret. As above, so below. Gaetan’s struggle to find the ethics of what to do for the sentients exploited by man turn out to be mirrored, in the novel’s last quarter, by others considering man’s fate.

Barton has been described as an author of nihilistic space opera. There is certainly, with vast interstellar wars, credible physics jargon, and superweapons aplenty, space opera here. And there is nihilism of a sort in that nothing is forever, all effort and accomplishment is doomed, all sentient life is ensnared by history and biology in a tragedy. But there is no ethical nihilism in that the novel calls for moral choices, acts of conscience.

Barton leaves a lot of external plot elements unresolved at story’s end, but the novel isn’t about outcomes. It’s about whether one flawed man, Gaetan, is going to make a choice and what that choice will be.


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