by John Barnes
Review by James Walton

John Barnes has made a distinguished career for himself as a writer of both Science Fiction and, under pseudonyms, men's adventure. He combined the two genre's in his Timeline Wars series. In Candle, Barnes once again combines the two.

It is year 26 by the new calendar. Currie Curtis Curran (Three Cur) is a retired cowboy hunter, living a good life with his wife in a cabin somewhere in the Colorado Rockies.

Most of what is left of humanity is happy. People lead productive lives working to correct the ecological disasters caused by decades of warfare. The workers are making progress with the glaciers that form across North America every winter and disappear during the summer. The permanent hurricane that continuously circles the Earth along the Equator will need a bit more effort.

Everyone is happy. Unhappiness is not allowed. When people become unhappy the computer program on the chip inside their heads force them to be happy again.

Early one morning Currie receives a call from the computer entity One True. The world's most dangerous cowboy, Lobo, long thought dead, has resurfaced. One True orders Currie, the world's greatest cowboy hunter, out of retirement to track and capture Lobo. (A cowboy is a person who refused to accept a computer implant and One True's control, choosing to live in the wilderness alone. Living "outside" is not allowed. )

Candle is most interesting when Currie is wandering around the Rocky Mountains searching for signs of Lobo. Barnes' allows us to see his character's thought patterns and reasoning. Were it not for the high tech snow suit and the surveillance satellites, the book would be a standard, mundane adventure or a Western. Currie seems completely lucid, in control and free but we are constantly reminded that Currie has a computer program running in his head, a program that controls Currie's emotions and memories, has debates with its host and keeps constant contact with One True. Is Currie nothing more than a meat puppet?

It is when hunter meets hunted that Candle tends to bog down. Barnes has his characters explain how this Sedate New World works via recitations of their life stories. The two men lounge in a hot tub and sip wine while they swap life stories. (They put off the decision as to whether or not to kill each other until morning.)

The world where Currie and Lobo grew up was not a nice place. Poverty and constant warfare left both of them orphans at an early age. While still teens they found themselves involved in the War of the Memes, self aware computer programs fighting it out for control of the minds of all humanity.

The most efficient and ruthless meme, One True, was the eventual winner.

It decreed that any human remaining on Earth after a certain date must submit to the computer implant and One True control. Since neither Currie nor Lobo had skills which would allow them to emigrate to Mars or one of the orbital communities, they both must stay and face the world according to One True. Currie accepted the implant while Lobo headed for the mountains.

Is it possible for One True to be as benign as Currie thinks? With the power to edit memories, One True can make everyone think and feel any way it desires. And what can a computer program possibly desire? A program based on code written by humans?

No explanation is given as to the nature of the memes and how they are able to invade human brains. Are memes organic, electronic, chemical or a combination of all three?

I'd originally shrugged at this book when I finished reading it. Not enough explanation as to the nature of memes and how they infect people and too many questions left unanswered. Then I learned that Candle is a revisit of a world Barnes created in other books. As such the author assumes we already have the required information about memes and One True. Not knowing about the previous books probably limited my enjoyment of this one.

Candle is marketed as a stand-alone novel but it doesn't quite work for me.

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