One of Bayley's most outré and witty novels, The Pillars of Eternity tells the story of space pilot Joachim Boaz, and a quest to find the treasures of a lost planet. Throughout, Bayley's famously fertile imagination blossoms all over the place, as one outlandish idea after another vies for your attention. But Bayley writes with a certain degree of black humor this time, which mitigates matters during those times the book threatens to go over the top altogether. The final result is another eye-opening and absorbing work of wonder from SF's unsung genius.
Having spent most of his youth suffering from horrible deformities that have earned him the cruel nickname of Mudworm, Boaz is rescued from him homeworld by a group of philosophers called collonadists, who replace his skeleton with an artificial one that also has the ability to heal his body and enhance his senses to various degrees he can control. Boaz is instructed in collonadist philosophy, which has determined that time moves along a wheel, and that all events that have ever happened will happen again and again throughout eternity, in an inviolable process. (Could even Robert Jordan be a Bayley fan?) Boaz learns to master what the collonadists call ataraxy, which is kind of like a zen state where you avoid emotional extremes and learn to accept your fate. However, if it seems like possessing an artificial skeleton that allowed you to highten your senses would run counter to such a philosophy, you'd be right, and Boaz finds this out the hard way, when a tragic accident which would ordinarily have killed him doesn't, because his skeleton keeps him alive all through it. So Boaz experiences extremes of pain and terror no one was ever meant to endure. (In a startling touch, Bayley makes this the most blackly amusing scene in the book!)
Now able to survive only through a special suit linked to a spacecraft from which he cannot exit farther than 15 miles, Boaz is determined to disprove the collonadists and, if possible, alter the course of time in the future, though it may mean that he and the entire human race may not exist in the universe's next go-round. Falling in with a group of thieves and gamblers, Boaz makes his way to a mysterious planet called Meirjain the Wanderer, which floats unpredictably throughout a distant star cluster and whose location has only recently been pinpointed after having been lost for years after its initial discovery. On Meirjain are said to be gemstones that can actually affect the course of time itself, and Boaz isn't the only one after them.
If the synopsis has you going "Holy cow!" then welcome to the mind of BJB. Bayley's hallmark is the seemingly bottomless well of ideas from which he draws his stories, taking them and molding them into unheard of shapes until you're left with something quite unlike anything else in SF. (One of the most startling ideas is that of a new sexual fad involving murdering your partner, who is immediately reborn into a clone.) But though Bayley has more originality in his pinky than the average convention guest list has to spread amongst themselves, I have heard him criticized for being light on character. To some level I'd agree; I'd actually say that Bayley gives the bulk of his attentions in characterization to his protagonist, allowing the rest of his cast to get by on the bare minimum necessary to get the story told.
But then, Bayley doesn't write character pieces, generally. This is idea fiction, set squarely within the familiar tropes of space opera but with everything rearranged to suit his own purposes. I suspect that if Bayley were an interior decorator he'd figure out a way not only to put the furniture on the walls and ceiling, but to fix it to where you could sit on it all the same.
The Pillars of Eternity might seem like it's just a bit too much to some readers, but I think most of you would find a lot to love in Bayley's books were you to discover them, a process soon to become easier through the reprinting efforts of Cosmos Books. Take a chance and enjoy a wild and weird ride through the worlds of Barrington J. Bayley.