Earth Made of Glass – John Barnes (1998)
‘At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist The Thousand Cultures, run by humans and drawing together through the new technology of instantaneous travel. Giraut and Margaret work as professional diplomats, easing the entry of new and diverse societies into The Thousand Cultures.
Their new mission is to prevent war between two cultures on the terrifyingly hostile world of Briand, all the time battling its harsh environment and trying not to let the strain of the task affect their own relationship.’
Blurb from the 1999 Millennium paperback edition.
Barnes’ sequel to the impressive ‘A Million Open Doors’ sees cultural agents from the Council of Humanity’s Special Projects Office Giraut Leones and his wife Margaret, sent to the 1.3 gravity world of Briand.
The backstory is that Humanity has been spread over numerous planets for hundreds of years, each of which is home to one or more cultures, some of which are (or were) recreated dead cultures from Earth’s past.
Most of the cultures have now been reassimilated into ‘Interstellar culture’ mainly due to the fact that ancient alien artifacts have been discovered on several worlds, and the Council of Humanity wants a united Human race to meet the inevitable First Contact.
Briand is a literary work of art in itself. It is a volcanic poisonous world whose only habitable areas are two island plateaux. On these were settled recreated Tamil and Mayan civilisations. Unfortunately, the Mayan plateau was rendered uninhabitable by a volcano eruption and the Mayans had to relocated on the Tamil plateau.
Tensions between the two cultures run high and the OSP agents are sent in to attempt a diplomatic solution.
Barnes’ scene-setting, descriptive skills and characterisation are top-notch and meld to produce a complex and compelling novel.
The Mayans, in an apparent bid to offer the hand of friendship, produce a prophet, Ix; a highly charismatic and Messianic figure whose charm and wisdom seduce many, but it may be that this is only the first move in a convoluted game of diplomatic and political chess in which all become embroiled.
It’s a novel about relationships (between individuals and cultures); about the nature of Truth, the power and danger of fundamentalist belief systems and it’s also about love.
The simmering hatred of the two cultures for each other is contrasted with the marriage of Giraut and Margaret, whose failure to communicate with each other is mirrored by the tension between the Mayans and the Tamils.