This novel is simultaneously deeply subversive and disappointingly conventional.
It obviously owes its premise and much of the feel of its world to Sta...moreThis novel is simultaneously deeply subversive and disappointingly conventional.
It obviously owes its premise and much of the feel of its world to Star Trek. It's set in a universe where the speed of light is no barrier, where there are quite a few practically-human species capable of star flight, whose planets interact the way countries here on Earth do (meaning there's immigration to and from, they form alliances and declare war, and there's trade) and all of them can interbreed. The Sadiri, the victims of the genocide, are definitely Vulcan-like; though they have not rejected emotion in favor of logic, they have epitomized restraint and morality to the rest of the galaxy, and they attribute their superiority in those fields to the way they have developed their telepathy through meditation and mental exercises.
Interestingly, though not particularly relevant to the story, this is a galaxy without Earth and humans-as-such; Earth is apparently under an interdiction, and the rest of the humanoid species have no contact with it other than the occasional snapping-up of doomed groups to be brought into the galactic fold for their useful genetic diversity.
The first sign that this is much more than just Star Trek-influenced cross-cultural-contact SF is the information, right off the bat at the start of chapter two, that Cygnians and Sadiri (who make up nearly the entirety of the cast of characters) possess "eyes, hair, and skin all somewhere on the spectrum of brown." There is one character, late in the book, that I would identify as white; he's so minor that I've forgotten his name, and what role he played.
The second sign is the nature of Cygnus Beta, the planet almost all of the action takes place on, and the home world of the protagonist. It is a planet of refugees, one of which the protagonist says "There isn't a group on Cygnus Beta who can't trace their family back to some world-shattering event. Landless, kinless, unwanted. . ." It is a poor planet, and one that the rest of the galaxy views as superstitious and backward. But it is not the violent, gang-ridden techno-poverty of the sort that is so often fetishized in cyberpunk, and it's not the picturesquely feudal and martial poverty of, for example, Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar; it's just the poverty of being a people whom circumstance and hostile action have rendered relatively resourceless.
The third sign is the breezy, confiding tone of Grace's narration. Lord's first novel, Redemption in Indigo, took that same tone; there, it was the obvious choice, a folktale fantasy narrated as it would be around a fire on a winter's night. But that tone, when transposed to a distinctly science fictional setting, becomes in itself somewhat revolutionary. Much of science fiction, particularly science fiction with pretensions at seriousness, adopts an objective tone, a distant faux-historical viewpoint that is meant to give it gravitas. That tone often hides as much as it highlights, encouraging the reader to look away from all the things that are missing (brown people, poor people, oppressed people). Grace's voice, warm and occasionally exasperated and always distinctly personal, makes this book feel real, aliens and telepaths notwithstanding.
That level of personal-ness is ultimately what I found so exciting about this novel. It is 100% science fiction, and the sort of science fiction I always find more satisfying, where the world is messy -- multiple types of telepaths, lots of different cultures and subcultures, the sense that the characters in the novel all have existences extending far into the past and the future, rather than existing purely for the sake of the plot. But it is also incredibly domestic -- ultimately, what the Sadiri need is to find a whole bunch of brides, because in the aftermath of the almost-genocide they were left with an incredibly male-skewed gender balance, and so the plot of the novel is taken up with a quest through Cygnus Beta looking for communities that have higher percentages of Sadiri bloodlines, so that the remaining Sadiri males can look for mates.
And that is where the novel becomes unfortunately conventional. Lord makes a point of how progressive Cygnus Beta is: there is a character of whom Grace says "Lian has chosen to live without reference to gender. This may or may not mean that Lian is asexual, though many of those who are registered as gender-neutral are indeed so. However, it doesn’t matter, because this has no bearing on our mission and is thus none of our business”; various comments indicate that bi/pansexuality is the norm; Grace jokes with her mother that the woman her mother is trying to seduce away from her husband actually wants Grace's mother to join in a triadic polyamorous relationship with the both of them. But there is absolutely none of that diversity of sexual and gender identity represented in the Sadiri and their plight: the Sadiri survivors are (almost) all men, and they are all going to be forced to enter into heterosexual monogamous relationships that are expected to be reproductively fruitful. And no one blinks an eye at that. It is a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, that Grace is so fully enmeshed in a non-heteronormative, non-monogamous society and yet is falling in love with a man from a society so much more rigid without even once questioning how willing his people are to abridge their right to self-determination.
(It is particularly galling, given that this is a science fictional setting, that Lord never addresses any potential technological fixes to the problem of a small, male-dominated survival group: no mention of genetic engineering, cloning, uterine replicators, anything beyond "get boy and girl to have sex, make babies".)
Still, aside from that conventional core, this novel is a delight. Grace's narration makes it a fast, enjoyable read. The quest plot takes the reader through quite a few very distinct subcultures on Cygnus Beta, the same way Isaac Asimov's Prelude to Foundation explores the various sectors of Trantor. There are several call-backs to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the Sadiri coming to Cygnus Beta intending to reshape it for their needs but ending up becoming rather more Cygnian than Sadiri in the process. There was also a significant reference to Jane Eyre, which seemed out of place. But most of all, I spent the novel thinking that Lord was doing much the same thing science fictionally as Lois McMaster Bujold was doing fantastically in her Sharing Knife quadrilogy -- they set up rigorous SFF worlds, and then they put those worlds at stake, positioned their cultures on the brink of extinction due to both external and internal forces; then they resolved the stories by having their characters settle down and make babies. This is, of course, an entirely fair resolution; if your culture is in danger of extinction, pretty much the only solution is to have children to carry it on. But it's a solution that sits oddly in the SFF canon.
A note on the cover: When I first saw this cover, my thoughts were pretty much "Hey! The person on the cover is non-white! Yay! But what's with the elephant?" I got to the end of the book and kind of wanted to *headdesk*. The elephant, surprisingly, was entirely relevant, was one of two symbols used heavily throughout (the other was a hummingbird, which made its way onto the British edition cover). But the woman on the cover, who I assume is Grace, has very definitely been white-washed.(less)
Dust was an ambitious novel, drawing on a medley of influences ranging from medieval romantic ballads of chivalry to gothic horror novels to classic S...moreDust was an ambitious novel, drawing on a medley of influences ranging from medieval romantic ballads of chivalry to gothic horror novels to classic SF generation ships, all overlaid with a smattering of Judeo-Christian myths. Its sequel, Chill, was best read as a character study. Grail, the final novel in this trilogy, just might be my favorite. It is that rarest of all beasts: an anthropological and philosophical science fiction novel like few people have written in my lifetime.
I have to admit I do not remember the plot described on the back of the book. I remember that it was there -- but this is absolutely not a tense murder mystery/thriller. I called this philosophical SF because it really is -- all the scenes that stand out in my memory are talky scenes, scenes between Perceval and the remaining Exalts, and between the political leaders on Fortune, and between Perceval and Danilaw, each speaking as representatives of their people. And all those conversations, ultimately, revolve around what makes people human, and what makes a good society. Because both the Jacob's Ladder and Fortune are the generations-later products of people attempting to build a utopia.
I won't spoil the details of either world; suffice it to say that we learn a lot more about what the people who set the Jacob's Ladder in motion were thinking, and we also discover that this series takes place in the same universe as Bear's stand-alone novel Carnival and get to see how the universe reacted to the events of that book. What I loved about these two contrasting utopias is that Bear takes care to highlight both societies' strengths and weaknesses, the ways that their founders were still blinded by their own prejudices and the ways that they were ultimately successful despite that. And unlike in more didactic utopian SF novels, the characters are not simply products of their societies, not passive mouthpieces for the philosophies behind them; instead, they are all conscious actors, actively engaged with their society and doing their best to bend it into a shape more to their liking. I found it thrilling, on an intellectual level, to see how Bear managed to pit the two societies at loggerheads at so many points without ever making either of them wrong.
And in many ways, they fundamentally do not work together, partly out of prejudice but partly because they have simply grown so far apart that it is hard for either group to consider the others fully human. It raises the stakes incredibly high, because the people of the Jacob's Ladder need to find a way to make a home on Fortune to survive at all, and with less than fifty pages until the end I could see no good resolution. So I understand why so many people, after reading this book, felt Bear used a deus ex machine. But, perhaps because I read it shortly after reading Laurie J. Marks' Water Logic, I am tempted to defend her choice. Water Logic is all about intuitive leaps, characters taking really disparate bits of information and, through some alchemy of genius, making something new and better out of them, so when the characters in Grail spent the entire novel talking about how they needed some leap like that I was primed to follow them. I will have to see, on rereading, what kind of hints Bear dropped; but I am pretty sure they will be there, unlike with Chill's resolution (which even I argued was a deus ex machine).
But even if the hints aren't there, even if a reread convinces me that Bear did pull the ending out of thin air, I loved this book. For the talky bits, and for the complicated optimism at its core.(less)
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those j...moreDamn this is a good book.
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jumps aren't always telegraphed adequately; some of the descriptions, while each individually quite beautiful, ended up feeling repetitive when taken as a whole. But most impressively, it already displays a great deal of the maturity and style that I loved in Slow River. Even in this first novel, Griffith's voice is assured, her characters are well-drawn, and her themes are delicately presented yet rigorously worked out.
Griffith's style is quietly exquisite, understatedly lyrical (in contrast to Catherynne M. Valente's muscular lyricism or Patricia A. McKillip's ornate lyricism or Peter S. Beagle's cooly intellectual lyricism)(and what is with my favorite authors and all their middle initials?) in ways that seem all the more surprising because this is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel. This is Griffith's description of Marghe's landing on GP:
The doors cracked open and leaked in light like pale grapefruit squeezings, making the artificial illumination in the gig seem suddenly thick and dim.
Wind swept dark tatters across a sky rippling with cloud like a well-muscled torso, bringing with it the smell of dust and grass and a sweetness she could not identify. . . She sniffed, trying to equate the spicy sweet smell on the wind to something she knew: nutmeg, sun on beetle wings, the wild smell of heather.
Okay, so maybe that passage wasn't so understated. I delight in that sort of passage in fantasy novels, where I expect magic; I delighted in it in Griffith's Slow River, which is SF but in the more "realist" vein, practically Mundane SF. Here, in this near-planetary romance, it took me aback as it should not have, and I am grateful to Griffith for reminding me that there can be so much beauty in the alien.
Part of the reason Jeep is so beautiful (in a stark fashion) is that we see it mostly through Marghe's perspective, and Marghe is a woman deeply attuned to both the world around her and to her own body. She looks outward and inward, and Griffith paints that dual focus with an incredible eye to detail that made the book startlingly visceral. I have been thinking lately about (female) SFF characters' relationships with their bodies, and the way that Marghe is so firmly sited within hers made the beatings, the starvation, and the sex come alive on the page. (Also it really sends the message: Jeep's a tough place!) The way that that character trait completely informs the way Marghe reacts to and advances the plot is just another sign of Griffith's immense skill as a storyteller.
But the thing I am most struck by is how perfectly the jacket description captures this book -- it is a book all about change. It's about characters changing, and it's about societies changing, and it's about the way those changes amplify or counteract each other, and then it's about everything changing again. It's not a book for people who like tight plots where every question raised is answered by the finale -- the finale just raises more questions about the future of the characters and the world. Instead it's a book for people who like history, who like to explore the hidden ways the past shapes the present and who are drawn to those turning points where the smallest decisions by individuals have the power to dramatically alter the fates of whole societies.(less)
This was an extremely uneven collection of short stories. The best of them were absolutely stunning, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The worst...moreThis was an extremely uneven collection of short stories. The best of them were absolutely stunning, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The worst were clunky, unsubtle, and lost their power (for me at least) as a result. All of the stories had some sort of fantastic element; unfortunately, the fantastic element seemed more likely to weaken the story than strengthen it. Still, good and bad, it's a collection very much concerned with power dynamics within families, between men and women, between poor and rich (or sometimes only less-poor), and between blacks and whites; themes I am always interested in and happy to see explored in fiction.
"Walter and the Three-Legged King" -- This starts as a straight piece of horror, about a poor man in a dirty apartment, who keeps spotting a rat that the building super insists isn't there. It succeeded in horrifying me; and then it went somewhere more political. The collection gets its title from this story, and I love the title; but the story itself doesn't do very much with the concept other than lay it out there. ★★★1/2
"Purse" -- This was my favorite story in the collection; I would not change a word of it. It's extremely short, so I can't really say anything about it without spoiling it, but it's visceral and gruesome and tragic. ★★★★★
"I Make People do Bad Things" -- And this was my second favorite story in the collection, a period piece about Madam St. Clair and the numbers racket in Harlem in the 1930s. Burke's character development shines in this one, and the horror is psychologically rather than fantastically rooted. (The fantastic element is pretty damn cool, though, and totally essential to the story.) My only objection was that it was structured as a flashback; I felt this was unnecessary and took some of the oomph out of the story. ★★★★
"The Unremembered" -- My least favorite story of the collection. It gives a magical explanation for a girl named Jeli's autism and is fierce on the subject of the Christian clergy's usefulness. Unfortunately, I found the message of the story entirely too heavy-handed, and while the two mothers' characters are well-drawn, that was not enough for me to enjoy this story. ★
"Chocolate Park" -- This story is, in some way I'm having trouble defining to myself, the rawest of the collection. The characters - a trio of sisters, an old woman, and a local thug living in the same inner city neighborhood - are ugliest to each other here, and there is power in that even though I don't particularly enjoy reading it. Unfortunately, it felt split to me; ugly though it was, I was invested in Ebony's thread and was not in Lady Black's; it made me wish Burke had gone a straight-realist route and forsworn the Lady Black character entirely. ★★1/2
"What She Saw When They Flew Away" -- This is another (relatively) straightforward story about loss, like "Purse." I don't think it worked as well, mostly because so much more is spelled out for the reader. However, the central image is absolutely haunting. ★★★
"He Who Takes the Pain Away" -- I must admit, I did not get this one. I could not tell if it was meant to be read as realism or allegory, whether the fantastical element was actually present or a hallucination. I wanted to like it, and its depiction of a cult of death was properly horrific, but without knowing how to read it I can't really assess whether I liked it or not. (Unratable)
"CUE: Change" -- I'm not really a zombie person. That said, there was an interesting twist on the zombies themselves that I wish had been explored more fully, and I thought the first-person narrator was very nicely (and subtly) drawn. ★★★★
"The Room Where Ben Disappeared" -- This is another one, like "I Make People Do Bad Things," where I wish Burke had used a different technique to tell her story. The first-person narrator grated on me in this story, and the fantastic element actually seemed to undercut the horror of the realism (like in "Chocolate Park"). He was the only white protagonist in the collection, and one of only two men, and he seemed. . . minor, forgettable compared to how memorable Burke's other protagonists are. But the piece of his past that he forgot. . . even with the fantastic element erasing the worst possible outcome, the stark realities of being black (and white, really) in the South made me want to scream. ★★★
"The Light of Cree" -- This story felt like a prologue; in fact, several of the stories felt like prologues (I assume that's what Delany meant in his blurb about "intriguingly open endings"). But this one more than the others -- it's about a girl who has just had her first period and discovers that she's different in more ways than that overnight. We see her realize that, and then the story ends, and I was left thinking "And then what happened?" (Particularly because Cree is no Jennifer Love Hewitt. . . and that's a good thing.) ★★1/2
"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason" -- This is the biggest of the stories, both in pages and in scope. It spans quite a few years and miles, following the powerful titular character through several small Southern towns where she touched down lightly and left chaos in her wake. (No, not chaos; mess, certainly, but a cleaner mess than the one she walked into, if that makes any sense.) I think the story would have benefited from being even longer; there's enough here for a novel, at least. Part of the reason I wanted it to be longer is that it suffers from the same problem many of the stories do: over-exposition. But in this case the exposition was actually necessary for the story to get told, so while it annoyed me just as much as before, I have to admit it was justified. Also again, my favorite moment is a non-fantastic one; there is a single moment of epic tragedy, made all the more poignant because it's so personal, so small. The story itself was just okay for me, and would have been just okay even if it had been expanded; but that moment was awesome. ★★★★(less)
I think that to review this book I am going to have to use spoilers. There's no way to talk about it without spoiling something, and to tell you the t...moreI think that to review this book I am going to have to use spoilers. There's no way to talk about it without spoiling something, and to tell you the truth I wish someone had spoiled this stuff for me, because the jacket description, the artwork, even the title are a bit misleading. The book I read, which I think was actually pretty strong (if old-fashioned) big idea science fiction, is not at all the book I was expecting to read. The spoilers will be kept general, on the order of "spoiling" Romeo & Juliet by saying it's a tragedy where everyone dies by the end, so I'm not going to mark this review as containing spoilers, but I will put it all behind a little cut. Don't read further if you really like to go into books cold!
------------------CUT FOR SPOILERS-------------------
The apocalypse comes quickly, an asteroid that sneaks up in the Earth's blindspot, so only seven people manage to make it off the planet to Tycho Base. This isn't a problem, because they've been preparing for something like this to happen, so the base is manned by robots and run by a computer; there's cloning technology (which is apparently not prone to replication error) and they have frozen samples from plenty (a number is never given) of people and animal and plant species -- everything they need to one day terraform the Earth. What is a problem is that they weren't prepared yet, so the base isn't fully functional. The seven survivors do what they can to make records of their lost (entirely American) civilization, and then they die.
All of which happens before the start of the book. The computer watched the planet for who knows how long (eons) keeping itself and its robots running, until the planet cleansed itself after the meteor impact -- there's a mention of volcanic activity that subsided and an Ice Age that came and went, but magically the continents are still in exactly the same place. Then it began to run its program, which involved birthing the clones of five of the survivors who have the skills to reseed the planet with life like we had known it. They're raised by the robots and holograms of their progenitors which have personality and some sort of artificial intelligence (the holograms can respond to their children, and learn, and think, though there's never any talk about artificial intelligence) and when they reach adulthood they're sent down to the planet to survey and spread the building blocks of our sort of life.
This begins a cycle. Clone generation after clone generation is born and raised identically, hundreds or thousands or millions of years apart from previous generations; each generation tries to plant the seeds of life and steer it to provide a good place for humans to recolonize, building on records left by previous generations of clones. Because they do receive the same upbringing and are genetically identical, it's easier for the reader to think of the clones as all the same person -- every Dunk (the narrator) is the same, even though Williamson has them often say they are their own people. And every time they go down to the planet, some of them die, or they discover that life has taken a very unexpected (and dangerous) turn.
They actually do manage to start several small human civilizations, but they are wiped out in their turn, and the computer on the base has to resurrect yet another generation to start again.
There are alien encounters, though they aren't at all convincingly alien. And the whole thing ends up feeling like an exercise in futility. The poor clones, born to die, seem like science fiction versions of Sisyphus.
I think that all this was Williamson's goal, and if so then he did accomplish what he wanted with the book. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I think it is what it was intended to be, so I have to say that it's well-done. What hurt it (beyond my dislike for exercizes in futility) was that it felt like a throwback, like Williamson (who was 93 when this was published, and first started writing in the late 20s) never got beyond the science fiction of the 1960s. As mentioned above, there's no evidence that Williamson understands plate tectonics -- by the end of the book we must be hundreds of millions of years in the future, but the clones still look down from the moon at "the Americas" or "Asia" or "Africa" or "the Mediterranean." The whole question of artificial intelligence is never raised, and it really needed to be for me to get any picture of how Tycho Base worked. His portrayal of relativistic space travel seemed. . . inaccurate, though I will admit I'm not a physicist. I should say it doesn't at all fit with what I know from modern science fiction novels written by physicists.
And even more than all that science that seemed lacking in what felt like a hard science fiction novel, the race and gender relations portrayed in the book are very much a product of a 50s/60s mentality. There are three women in the eight people cloned at one point or another: one is the keeper of the cultural artifacts, a virgin locked in her tower of the past; one is a biologist who "understands and enjoys" sex and shares with all of the men who are interested; the third is cloned only twice, the girlfriend of one of the men who, when she isn't cloned, becomes a sort of mythic ideal he spends his life pining for. The women never play any role in reseeding the planet; often they end up being held captive in Tycho Base by the paranoid alpha male.
Of the men, one is a Latino of some sort (it's never clear where his ancestors are from, but we meet him in New Mexico) and the pilot; in every incarnation he simply follows whoever leads. Another is "black as tar, though he had an Oriental poker face" and he is the one person who forced his way onto the shuttle leaving the dying earth. A night watchman at the facility, he kept the crowds back while the chosen few made it onboard with their supplies and then pulled a gun and insisted that they take him and his girlfriend (the soon-to-be mythic ideal) with them. He isn't resurrected at first, but when he is he immediately is set up, time after time, against the paranoid alpha male, and time after time he loses. In one iteration, the alpha male sets up a tyrannical government that runs on slave power, and all the slaves are clones of "El Chino," the former night-watchman.
So when I pretended to myself that it had been written in 1958, I could look past all those elements; when I reminded myself that it was published in 2001, I had to roll my eyes and wonder what the editors at Tor were thinking.
But still, if I ignore all those throwback elements, the book does accomplish what I think Williamson intended. It seems an awfully depressing future, full of futility and hubris, but I got it, and I think the book would work for people who like reading that sort of thing.(less)
I knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory character...moreI knew going into this that the Sword-Dancer books were light sword-and-sorcery reading. I was prepared for minimal world-building, cursory character building, and purple prose. But what totally threw me at the start of the first book (Sword Dancer) was that Roberson seems to know absolutely nothing about how to survive in the desert. The entire novel is a trek through the desert, and yet the two main characters set off with a little dried meat in their bags and a couple of waterskins on a moment's notice. Apparently this is a desert where waterholes and oases are only a day or two apart, but Tiger spends a lot of time talking about how sometimes wells are fouled, and sandstorms come up in a moment, and there are all these dangerous animals that can lay you low, and no time at all preparing for any of those dangers. If a seasoned trekker is going off into a desert that dangerous, he rides a camel (by the way, where were the camels? it was definitely supposed to be the Arabian desert) if he's not in a major rush and he brings along at least one extra in case his animal goes lame and to carry extra supplies. He should have a small tent he can pitch around himself to provide some protection from a sandstorm. He should have a heck of a lot more water and food. It would have been one thing if the idiotic Northerner had tried to go into the desert with no preparation, but for the supposed world-wise Southerner to do it completely ruined my faith in the author's ability to handle her own world.
Del's character was also problematic for me at the very opening. She has supposedly spent five years training herself for this mission, but she is unwilling to wait a day (or an hour) to properly prepare herself for a dangerous journey through the desert? Those are incompatible world views. She should be patient after spending so much time breaking down cultural barriers in the north, and she exhibits no patience at all in the novel. With the decisions she made (or wanted to make) she should have died almost immediately having come nowhere near achieving her object for simple lack of foresight.
And because Roberson lost me so early on, I spent a great deal of time looking for other inconsistencies. For instance, the desert seems Arabian, and some of the tribes seem Bedouin, which fits, and several cultures seem Arabic, but heaven is called Valhail (and sounds quite a bit like Valhalla when it is mentioned) and all the terms related to sword fighting seem drawn from Japanese culture. I don't mind authors picking and choosing things they like from world cultures, but if they aren't cultures that naturally mingle in our world, the terms should be disguised quite a bit more so that an average reader doesn't detect the source material. That sort of thing I might have overlooked if Roberson had my trust, but since she handled her desert so poorly I wasn't willing to extend her any credit on those accounts.
I did make it through the entire first novel; it read quickly, and it was pretty much as I expected. But every time things were moving along decently well and Roberson was rebuilding my suspension of disbelief she would do something else that revealed her lack of control over her novel: the characters would do something inconsistent, or some aspect of the world would get lost that was set up earlier, or a passage of time would be handled badly. By the time the climax was reached, I still didn't like either of the main characters, I didn't buy their growth, and I didn't care at all whether they accomplished their goals. Given all that, I am undecided on whether or not to read the next novel. It is incredibly light, easy reading -- probably only an afternoon's worth -- and I already own it, but I still don't know if I want to bother.(less)
Dust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way...moreDust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way more sensawonder than any book I've read this year (including Zelazny's Lord of Light and M. John Harrison's Light). But the characters were ciphers to me through the first two-thirds, and I'm positive that I didn't get any of the allusions fully. Still, I shall do my best, and talk about the elements that occur to me in order.
First, the science fiction. This is a broken-down generation ship novel, and the ship itself is a glorious bit of world-building. It is the world to its inhabitants, but they're under no pretenses that it is also a ship, and they curse accordingly -- Space! is the usual ejaculant, and the Enemy of vaccuum is present in several wonder-and-horror-tinged E.V.A.s. The ship is enormous, and much of it is dead, and what is left alive is incredibly strange, full of both nanotechnology and plain old terrestrial biology run amok. The people who set out in Jacob's Ladder (the ship's name) loved tinkering with genetics (for reasons explained about a third of the way in which I shan't spoil but which have bearing on the next section) so the humans now on board are split into the Exalt -- people whose blood literally runs blue due to their nanotech symbionts -- and the Mean, baseline humans who are forced to serve. The Exalt have clearly played with their genetics, many being winged, or furred, or otherwise altered, but even the Mean are not quite humans like us, as Bear makes it clear early on that there are at least three genders present -- men, women, and kant, the ungendered. (She invents new pronouns for the kant: "hir" and "sie" which function well enough but when first presented look unfortunately like typos.) And there are any number of artificial intelligences running around, greater and lesser ones, some diffuse throughout the ship, others contained in rather unlikely places (like a laser-torc that is also a basilisk, or a nuclear reactor leak).
And running through all this SF coolness are biblical and Arthurian and gothic allusions that make the novel look and feel quite a bit more like high fantasy. One of the two protagonists is called Sir Perceval, and she (I did mention the gender-bending, didn't I?) is also a celibate knight on a quest; the Exalt, as mentioned before, are literally blue-blooded and have split what remains of the ship into domaines which they rule through primogeniture; and the A.I.s are referred to as "angels" and all (except one) have taken (or were given? it's unclear) names straight out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But this is NOT fantasy dressed up as science fiction. It has all the trappings of a quest fantasy because it draws on those sources that quest fantasy evolved from, but these characters chose them consciously. The Exalt created their high-tech Medieval world, and their ancestors built the Biblical A.I.s, and the fact that there are two different sets of referents being used by two classes of individuals (the Exalt and the A.I.s) is totally consistent and meaningful. This is a consciously feudal future, one where terms like "Exalt" and "angel" are thrown around divorced from any sense of reverence or religious connotation (but again, not without a meaning that I don't want to spoil).
There are also all the social SF elements -- this is the future, and one of the understated ways Bear makes sure we don't forget that is the way their mores are not our mores. There are the three common genders, and there's a double-gendered individual (I couldn't tell for sure, but I don't *think* that was a common thing; there weren't special pronouns for the single double-gendered person so I'm assuming that that choice isn't common, though it didn't particularly surprise or apall the characters who met him/her/hir); there's sexuality of all stripes presented matter-of-factly, including incest (after all, if there's no worry about inbreeding leading to monsters. . .); there's also cannibalism as a matter of course, because an Exalt who consumes another Exalt gains access to their identity -- memories and personality included. And yet alongside that cannibalism everyone appears to be very casually vegetarian, because humans are wonderful at maintaining two mutually-exclusive world views, and I wouldn't expect that to be any different in the future.
Did you notice that this is only a 342-page novel? That's a lot to unpack, and that's one of the reasons I was engaged but not enthralled through the first 200 pages. Bear never hands the reader information -- all this world-building was accomplished without a single info-dump, and without any of the characters having those terribly awkward "As you know, Bob" conversations. But getting all that across and moving the quest along left less time than I would like to get to know the characters. Bear starts the novel at the last possible second (as you should, but as very few authors do, preferring to give their readers a few introductory chapters to make sure they're solidly grounded in the world and the people and the power structure) and that unfortunately means that I didn't have a clue why Rien and Perceval were acting the way they were at first. I had some guesses, and my guesses ended up being right, but it took 200 pages for me to be really comfortable in their skins, to feel like they were acting rather than reacting.
Once I was there I was with them body and soul, and the ending kind of floored me, but it took a while.(less)
This is a glorious book, Baker at the top of her form. It is indeed a "rollicking" adventure, full of high-jinx and one-upmanship, but more than that...moreThis is a glorious book, Baker at the top of her form. It is indeed a "rollicking" adventure, full of high-jinx and one-upmanship, but more than that it is an ode to the pioneering spirit in general and the Old West in particular. It is what Joss Whedon's Firefly was at its best, full of broadly-drawn but charismatic characters scrapping together the sort of life no longer allowed in more "civilized" parts of the galaxy. There is a gold rush of sorts, and a cattle stampede, and skeezy nefarious types looking to balk our heroes at every turn; there is also corporate espionage, religious intolerance, and some major technical obstacles to overcome in the still largely un-terraformed landscape; but mostly there is just a group of misfits bands together with ingenuity, stubbornness, and a judicious application of force to forge a kinder -- but much less gentle -- society in the wilderness.
For longtime readers of the Company novels some familiar faces appear -- Eliphal and Joseph, though Joseph is going by another name -- and the hand of the Company is clear in everything that occurs; but that backstory is largely opaque to the newcomer to the series, so this novel does read well as a stand alone. A newcomer might find some of the implications about our future a little peculiar, but rest assured that any strangeness is explained in the larger series, and it's really not the point of this novel anyway. This is not science fiction with any particular scientific or political or philosophical bone to pick; it's pure, unadulterated fun, much like the Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels that the colonists lovingly pay homage to, except with less problematic gender and race relations and a veneer of scientific plausibility. (Baker does manage to keep the canals though.)(less)