Gaudeamus means “rejoice,” as in, Rejoice! The aliens are here! (At last!) But, like everything in this comic thriller of a science fiction parody, “gaudeamus” has a double (at least) meaning: “gaudeamus” sounds suspiciously like “God damn us!” That second, undercover meaning is never directly referred to, but what else are we supposed to say when, every time someone invents the Gaudeamus technology, aliens show up and buy the entire planet Earth?
The jacket and publicity hype about this book is that it “shatters the line between reality and fantasy.” Sure it does—if you believe aliens willing to barter megatons of platinum for the planet are on the line between reality and fantasy. And that “blur” is supposed to make Barnes’ novel “post-modern.” Take my advice: leave the marketing hype for the suckers (after all, there’s one born every minute, but you’re not one of them, ey?) and the “post-modern” nonsense for the grad-school nerds (word up, y’all: “post-modern” is an architectural term, and the more we all cooperate to shove it back on their plate the better off and happier we’ll all be).
The motivation for the hype—besides selling books, I mean—is straight forward enough: the story is told by John Barnes, award-winning science fiction author. Barnes, of course, really is the author of Gaudeamus. If you’ve been stuck in the science-fiction ghetto all your life, you’ve maybe never seen this gimmick before, but it’s pretty standard fare, and has been since Laurence Sterne’s early eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The novel is set in the late 1990s; an Internet comic called “Gaudeamus” is circulating like an infectious and addictive meme. (There was in fact a comic called Docteur Gaudéamus, by the artist Coq—AKA Louis Garcia Gallo—that was published from 1960 to 1973.) Barnes (the character) is wasting time reading the comic, and not writing his next book (the first “God damn us!”) when his old college pal, Travis Bismarck, shows up at his door. (College pals? Yes, as a matter of fact a “gaudeamus” is also a rowdy, drunken bash at the end of a college term. The meanings multiply in reality as they do in the novel; maybe there’s something to all that hype after all… There’s a awful lot of alcohol consumed in this book.) And does Travis ever have a story to tell.
Switching from the first person of Barnes to the first person of Travis Bismarck, we get a wild tale of industrial espionage and “hard” science fiction. (“Hard” goes in quotes because Barnes keeps claiming he doesn’t understand the science; he’s a theatre prof, after all, and not a physicist.) There’s this prostitute, you see, Bismarck tells Barnes telling us, and she’s passing secrets from one company to its competition. These companies are competing to develop, you guessed it, the Gaudeamus technology.
Gaudeamus is miraculous, a free lunch in a universe otherwise known for its penny-pinching attitude towards such things as the conservation of energy. (“Hard” SF? Jonathan Swift has a free lunch for you!) Gaudeamus teleports, telepathizes, and, maybe, with any luck, changes the baby’s diaper. And the instant anyone invents it (which, twisting the whole industrial-espionage thing into a goofy ball of wax, people keep doing, all over the world all the time), the aliens come down and strike a deal. (Why? Read the book! Really; it’s great—but OK, it’s an interstellar law: when a species invents Gaudeamus, you, dear alien, can pop up and buy their planet. Fair enough?)
In short, Gaudeamus is a gaudeamus-good read: it’s an hilarious spoof and (no easy feat this) a thrilling page-turner. The ending is perhaps a wee contrived, but (without offering a spoiler) it rests on an analogy to jury nullification—and for that, I’d like to kiss Barnes’ feet and do all his typing for the next millennium (or at least until the aliens show up and nullify the need for such primitive behavior). Jury nullification is one of the most potent constitutional rights that ever got buried under a pile of power-tripping white-male B.S. (That’s why, unless you’re to the political left of God, or a Libertarian, you’ve never heard of it.) You, Citizen, as a member of a jury of your peers, have a right to vote your conscience. If you and your peers agree that a law is immoral, unethical and just plain wrong, you can vote to nullify it. No kidding: check out the
Fully Informed Jury Association and read the history of precedents yourself. The law’s not just about the schmucks with the JD degrees; a citizen’s sense of justice counts for something. Not just here (“here,” as in the United States, on planet Earth) but, it turns out (at least in Barnes’ universe), in the rest of the galaxy, as well. And to that I say, in all its meanings, Gaudeamus!