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Literature / Thousand Cultures

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The Thousand Cultures is a science-fiction series by John Barnes. Set in the 29th century, when mankind has spread out into other star systems, it explores themes of globalization, religious extremism, and the conflict between human and artificial intelligence as the development of new technology allows people to travel vast interstellar distances more quickly, causing a number of isolated cultures to collide with one another.

The series:

  • A Million Open Doors
  • Earth Made of Glass
  • The Merchants of Souls
  • The Armies of Memories


This series contains examples of:

  • Crapsaccharine World: At first, Nou Occitan, with its culture of art and poetry, seems like an idyllic world, because we're only hearing about it from Giraut's perspective. Bieris and Garsenda paint a very different picture, of a culture where women are either ignored or raped while the men spend all their time fighting and posturing.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: This is largely the point of the series. Each of the Thousand Cultures has its own mores, some of which are intended to be repellent to the reader (like Nou Occitan's sexism, or Caledony's religiously-fueled debt-slavery system), but the development of the springers has forced encounters between these cultures.
  • Disposable Woman: Poor Betsy Lovelock is brutally raped and killed during the uprising in Utilitopia in order to spur Giraut and his friends into rebelling against Saltini's regime.
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  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: Caledony practices Rational Christianity, a bizarre mix of Calvinism and Objectivism in which the market is deliberately manipulated in order to make it "moral".
  • Good Shepherd: Clarity Peterborough is a genuinely kind and caring leader to her flock.
  • Honor Before Reason: Occitans live by the codes of enseingnamen and finamour, which stress fidelity to culture and lover above nearly everything else. In the first chapter, we see how well this serves them, as one of Giraut's companho gets killed during a four-on-five fight, all because a drunkard called him a coward and enseingnamen obligated him to fight back.
  • Idle Rich: Nou Occitan has created an entire culture of these; since nearly all labor on Wilson is done by machines, almost everyone under 30 spends their days drinking, sword-fighting, and writing ballads.
  • Indentured Servitude: On Caledony, everyone relies on the government because the planet has not been properly terraformed, and thus is not designed to be inhabited by humans. The government, which is full of religious zealots who believe that life is supposed to be miserable, charges its citizens for everything, leaving everyone in debts that they have to spend their whole lives paying off.
  • Rival Final Boss: Towards the end of A Million Open Doors, having helped liberate Caledony from its brutal theocracy, Giraut returns to Nou Occitan to battle his rival Marcabru.
  • Sinister Minister: Saltini, the head of the PPP, stages a coup in order to prevent Aimeric's economic reforms from being carried out, as they conflict with Rational Christianity.
  • Technician Versus Performer: Discussed when Giraut tries to teach music to the Caledons. As an Occitan, Giraut believes that performance is the most important aspect of music, whereas on Caledony, music is judged according to technique.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm:
    • Midway through A Million Open Doors, Caledony is suddenly taken over by the PPP in a desperate attempt to stop the planned economic reforms from happening.
    • From the same book, Nou Occitan undergoes a more comical version, as Yseut proves to be a terribly ineffectual queen who uses her new power and influence to start writing utterly inaccessible poetry. Since the Occitan finamour requires that an honorable man defend his entendedora from insults, Yseut's consort Marcabru spends all of his time fighting her critics, which not only destroys his reputation, but also causes traditional Occitan fashion to go out of style, as nobody wants to be seen wearing the same style as the idiot who spends all his time fighting on behalf of a bad poet.