Donald Barr's Space Relations is a character-driven space opera from 1975. Despite the seemingly-humorous subtitle, it is a deadly earnest novel that attempts to tackle weighty issues with ostentatiously "literary" prose.
It tells the story of John Craig, the ambassador from Earth to the planet Kossar. Craig represents an intergalactic human empire, currently at war with a sinister bug people. Kossar, although human, is not part of the empire - mostly because the ruling aristocrats refuse to abolish the slave trade that is the foundation of their class system and economy.
The narrative is split in two. Initially (and ultimately) it tells the story of Craig's official visit to Kossar. In between, it recounts Craig's previous visit to the planet - two years spent as a slave of the fulsome Lady Morgan.
The war with the bug aliens is, although occasionally referenced, merely a MacGuffin to make Kossar (otherwise a backwater world in dire need of sterilization) important. Similarly, the complex, Machiavellian politics of the future - both in Kossar and on Earth - are often, tantalizingly, cited, but never fully explored.
Instead, the plot focuses on the torrid romance between John Craig (slave) and Lady Morgan (his owner). The author also explores (crashes through the underbrush, really) the issues of slavery and domination.
The result is a frustrating and ponderous read. Barr aggressively pursues character development instead of world-building, but since his characters neither grow nor change, it is merely a prolonged sketch of two fairly obnoxious people.
His exploration of slavery is neither sensitive nor telling. Despite repeatedly and officiously informing the reader that slavery is wrong at every turn (go figure), Barr creates two openly "superior" characters as his leads. Craig and Morgan freely kill, torture, seduce and make sweeping political decisions on behalf of thousands of people - but this is acceptable, because they're somehow imbued with "natural heroism". Slavery and oppression are wrong, unless you're someone as wise and talented as Craig or Morgan, in which you're perfectly justified in forcing decisions on other people.
An expression of this natural superiority is Craig's unbelievably irritating habit of composing poetry. Clearly intended to add to the depth of the novel, what begins as an annoying, occasional snippet soon becomes a field of lyrical land-mines. This practice is especially painful in the middle of the book, as the reader is forced to plow through sonnets on every other page. As a result, Space Relations is one of the most picture-perfect expressions of Tolkien's Law ("Always skip the poetry") that I've ever read.
Space Relations is a laborious read. Although I always applaud an attempt at character-building instead of world-building in space opera, the novel skillfully managed to dodge everything of possible merit.
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