Kaleidoscope Century

John Barnes’ SF novel Kaleidoscope Century is a clever alternative history of the 21st century, hilariously dystopian….

Kaleidoscope Century has it all: paranoid conspiracies, airborne mutant AIDs that kills everybody over forty, predatory AI memes that infect and clone human brains, senseless carnage, eco-catastrophe, sex and drugs aplenty. Nearly everything that humanity might do to fuck things up happens at some point in the course of this book. The narrator himself is a big part of the mayhem. At the chronological start of the story, in the 1980s, he’s an American agent of the KGB. But after the fall of Communism, the KGB privatizes itself and goes freelance–and that’s when things really get out of hand. Thanks to both longevity treatments and time-travel loops, the narrator gets to see it all. He kills and rapes his way through the entire 21st century–though to be fair, he has moments of guilt over some of the things he has done, and experiences of tenderness and hope (and almost, but not quite, of love) as well. He’s really just an ordinary guy, trying to do his job, and otherwise get along, in situations where the overwhelming majority of the human race is being exterminated, or forced to go feral, or transformed into mindless drones. I think it’s the narrator’s puzzledly amoral tone, above all, that makes the book read more as comedy than as horror. Marx said that everything in history happens twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. John Barnes just cuts to the chase, and gives us the tragedy itself as farce. Or again, Walter Benjamin, writing on the eve of World War II, worried that humanity was reaching the point where it could “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order”; but Barnes knows that, in this age of murder by simulation (in the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere), we are already far beyond that.