When We Were Real

More William Barton and a retro review from September 4, 2008.

Review: When We Were Real, William Barton, 1999.When We Were Real

Barton is a poet of despair. And here he gives us Darius and Violet, lovers with a story complicated by slavery, death, and guilt.

Darius Murphy is a refugee from an oppressive matriarchy on a decaying orbital colony. After signing up with Standard ARM, one of the most powerful of the corporations that rule man, he meets Violet. She is something of a fox – literally. An animal-human chimera, she is an optimod and property of Standard ARM.

While an ARM soldier, Violet is killed, and Murphy wanders human space meeting interstellar hoboes, becomes a military adviser to rebels against the corporate order and suffers rape both literal and economic before rejoining Standard ARM where he’ll help kill millions. And suddenly he is confronted with a choice, a gamble to cease being what he is …

This is a war novel and a novel of the small bits of sex and simple love that are all that seem meaningful and real in the horrors of Murphy’s life. And it is a novel about people constricted and controlled by an economic and political order. But governments, unlike the laws of physics, can be changed. While the novel is sympathetically and effectively narrated by Murphy – Barton is a master of books narrated by not very likeable people, it doesn’t give absolution to Murphy or the others who perpetuate corporate tyranny. The many rebellions Murphy fights in – on both sides – may be futile or they may plant the seeds for successful ones.

The novel does have a couple of odd moments. The foxy lady Violet seems too much a pun. And the ludicrous Himerans, introduced in the first chapter, suggest jokes about machines birthing other machines. But these seem more a nod to Cordwainer Smith, to whom the book is dedicated, than attempts at humor. Barton is most definitely not a humorous writer and doesn’t try to be.

With his earlier When Heaven Fell and Acts of Conscience, this makes a sort of trilogy of exploitation, novels with characters locked into slavery by alien overlords or their biology or human tyranny.


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