Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book
Rate this book
On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change....

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield—even after she had surrendered—proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off—but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses—exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.

342 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 2007

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Elizabeth Bear

309 books2,271 followers
What Goodreads really needs is a "currently WRITING" option for its default bookshelves...

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
494 (20%)
4 stars
958 (40%)
3 stars
623 (26%)
2 stars
220 (9%)
1 star
81 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 331 reviews
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews870 followers
August 10, 2022
"The world is a wheel, and we are all broken on it. And that is fine and just. For there is never any hurry, until there is no time.”

Elizabeth Bear: Everyone's Utopia Is Someone's Dystopia – Locus Online

Loads of interesting concepts and wonderful writing in Elizabeth Bear's Dust (Jacob's Ladder #1). The story, set on a generational ship, is driven by divergent evolution, advanced biotechnology, AI's, and a new mythology. This sort of speculation is something I really appreciate about science fiction. The plot is sometimes confusing, but the actual writing and language is very strong. I look forward to reading more from Elizabeth Bear.

Aside, I met Elizabeth Bear at GenCon in Indianapolis. Wonderful to meet and talk with Elizabeth!

Profile Image for Phoenixfalls.
147 reviews79 followers
October 7, 2010
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 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.
Profile Image for Chris  Haught.
576 reviews214 followers
December 25, 2014
Delayed review, at last:

I really don’t know what I just read, for two reasons. One, I was confused as all get out. Second, my mind was drifting to things that were more interesting, like the hands of my clock turning around. Nice thing about audiobooks are that when you drift or fall asleep, they continue to play. Eventually I heard “The End” and I could mark the damn thing as complete.

There were elements in this book that reminded me of three others. Unfortunately, it was the annoying qualities of those books and not the cool stuff. So cross the spaceship mindfuckery confusion of Revelation Space with the immortal inbred scheming family at war with itself in The Chronicles of Amber and the Angsty Angel Romance dickery of Daughter and Smoke and Bone and you might have an idea at what this was about. Well, you might not but at least you’ll know what sort of groans and headdeskings you’re in for.

Bear has decent prose and a good imagination. There were enough interesting bits in this to keep me from one-starring it, and the audio saved it from DNF status.

In short, I might try Elizabeth Bear again, but the leash is short.
Profile Image for Louise.
947 reviews291 followers
February 15, 2011
I sped through the last quarter of this book not because I wanted to know what happened, but because the story was trash and I just wanted to get it over with. I guess it says something that I actually finished the book, but I'm not sure what.

Dust takes place on a giant multi-generation space ship that's stranded in space. In case you haven't been reading my reviews, don't ever ever go into space. Bad stuff ALWAYS happens in space. And the "bad stuff" in Dust is mostly the storytelling.

Heavy-handed religious symbolism? Check! (Self-aware computer programs called angels that are oh yeah, also named after angels)

Gratuitous sexualty? Check! (Why do programs have to kiss to transfer data again? If they're all so powerful, shouldn't they have wireless or something that doesn't require physical contact, devouring each other, sex, kissing, or any of this nonsense?)

Nonsensical world-building? Check! (I know it's sci-fi and all, but the emphasis in this book is *not* on science)

Undeveloped characters? Check! (The characters were so bland, I wasn't even bothered by the rampant incest going on because they were just cardboard cut-outs of real people)

I also got annoyed by the author's tone and writing at the end. It seemed like she fell too in love with her own words and couldn't bear to have an editor trim it down.

I'm not really sure why I forced myself to finish this. The characters were so mutated, so far from being human that it was hard to care about what happened to them. Even when the big reveal happened, I didn't care. The book reminds me of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the way that it did *not* make sense.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,978 followers
June 14, 2015
I keep hearing Elizabeth Bear in all my regular haunts, I knew she had a lot of writing with nanotech, heavy-sf, and mythology, all of which I'm particularly fond. So why haven't I picked up her works before now?

I'm an idiot. I can't think of a more accurate reason.

So here I am, reading Dust and seeing a serving girl rescue a princess who just got her wings torn off and the lady of the household is preparing for war. All good and fine for a fantasy novel, only they're preparing for war within a generational spaceship that broke down, it's all-encompassing AI gone schizo, and everyone wants to put humpty-dumpty back together again by eating each other's minds until "The One" can become the Captain.

Okay! I was wondering where this was going. Now I know, and I really like it! But wait, the schizo AI is really fragmented and spun out conflicting personas that are called Angels and like to stab each other in the backs. And they're also godlike. And they like to mess around in the destinies of mere bio-and-nano enhanced humans living in this experimental breeding ground. Who's good? Who's bad?

Our serving girl gets an upgrade, and our rescued princess tells her that she's her half-sister. (What? Oh wait, that makes sense after you see how inbred everyone is on a generational spaceship.) Politics plays a big role throughout the novel, but only in the sense of gods playing with mere mortals, fathers using their children as bargaining chips, and the sense that we've all just been sent into a final battle royale.) The sibling's love can get rather complicated, but their regard never wavers, even when the two get pitted on either side of a tug of war between gods. Good conflict there, I suppose, but it didn't quite have the outcome the setup might have warranted.

Am I dissatisfied with the outcome? I'm not sure. Something nags at me about the entire direction of the novel, and it's more of a forest question, not the trees. The trees were just fine. I like the ending. I just wonder if we could have had more directed conflict in the middle or even a few more reversals. The confusion of the main characters was fine, I just wonder if there should have been a bit more tugging from the non-godlike characters.

That being said, I'm excited to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Spoiler alert!

Computronium is people. COMPUTRONIUM IS PEOPLE! I like the development where we've all been turned into breeding farms for smart swarms of nanos in order to retroactively fix the starship. There's a hell of a lot of fun in here once you get beyond the angel's machinations. It's a much smarter fix for the Duracell argument.

Do I recommend? Hell yes if you want a good dose of symbolism and nanos, a-la Zelazny's Lord of Light, but not as powerful.
Profile Image for The Shayne-Train.
363 reviews90 followers
March 27, 2017
This was an excellent, sometimes-surrealistic, sometimes-ultra-realistic story of angels and knights and computer avatars trying to save/take over/destroy a huge, almost-decrepit generational starship that has become the 'world' to a human population.

This is an extremely hard book to review, I find. There's so much going on. But, as is always the case with Ms. Bear's superb writing, the tapestry it weaves inside your mind is gorgeous, nuanced, and satisfying.

I plan to read the other two in the trilogy, but this is the kind of story that begs for a break between installments. My mind needs to digest, and grow hungry again.
Profile Image for Lis Carey.
2,165 reviews94 followers
May 18, 2018
Jacob's Ladder is a generation ship, launched by an unusual religious cult, now stranded in orbit around a double star. After 500 years of drifting in orbit, the ship damaged and the the ship's AI fragmented into multiple units that have been dubbed Angels, the ship's population is divided into separate, rival populations in different parts of the ship. Rule and Engine are about to go to war. There's a struggle over who will be the new Commodore.

But the stars are heading toward going nova very soon, and the Angels, with a much better understanding of the ship's danger than the human population have, are engaged in their own struggle. They need to rejoin into a unified whole that can truly operate the somewhat-repaired ship, but each wants to be the dominant personality, too.

In the midst of all this, we meet Rien, a Mean, or servant, in Rule, and Perceval, a knight of of Engine.

What Rien doesn't know at first, but Perceval does, is that they are sisters, intentionally conceived to be hostages. When Perceval is captured during a clash between Rule and Engine, Rien is the one assigned to care for her in what are the last couple of days before Arianne, head of Rule, consumes the symbionts that will give her all of Perceval's knowledge and memories.

What follows is a wild adventure in which we, along with Rien, learn a great deal more about the world of Jacob's Ladder, the intentions of their founders, and the threats the ship faces. Rien, Perceval, their relatives, and the AIs all learn, grow, and face major choices and losses. It's an exciting, interesting, satisfying story.

It's the first of a trilogy, but this part of the story comes to a satisfying conclusion of its own, while leaving room for the arc of the rest of the trilogy.


I bought this audiobook.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,894 reviews430 followers
December 5, 2014
The front cover might give the impression this sophisticated YA book is a religious fantasy, but IMHO the story is pure science fiction.

The plot is a mystery and a quest, with a fantasy tone. There is a lot of extremely impressive advanced biotechnology which has reshaped some humans into winged body forms. There are AI's which think of themselves as incorporeal gods/angels, creating their self-image from the ebooks within their computerized libraries. There are animals and insects scampering about, escaped from what were originally planned parks and gardens, now wild and untended, or farms which have become forgotten oases where individuals live, unknown to many of the others except for some of the AI’s.

The plot derives from an extremely smart extrapolation of what might happen if a bible-based religious sect of thousands of humans set out into space on a high-tech ship to establish a colony, but the spaceship goes horribly off-course from damage and becomes trapped around a doomed pair of suns ready to supernova at some point.

The book reads like a sword fantasy, initially, with some nominative religious imagery, but gradually I realized it was pure science fiction. The characters’ bodies have been genetically manipulated with a lot of nanobot machines in their blood, but the people have generally forgotten why they were traveling in space and remember almost nothing about their religion but for iconic representations. Some of the broken or disconnected sections of the monstrous ship have become Houses for Family groups. The leadership have become incestuous with the necessity of living inside fort-like homes and they marry cousins, sisters, and brothers between Families. (It appeared to me like the kind of society which develops on small islands, when people from a shipwreck were not rescued for many decades, or similar to the medieval ages of Earth, only with the natural social progression that might come from the ability to bioengineer bodies which can be changed into any sexual configuration.)

Those who are the surviving children of Alasdair Conn, their last House Rule Commodore after the death of the last Captain, are of the elite Exalt clan, and they are barely human, having been heavily modified with biotech. ‘Means’ are unmodified humans, and the character Rien, whom I adored, belongs to the Means class, an ordinary person. Rien is a young servant in the Lady Ariane’s house in the domain of Rule. She tries to keep out of the way of the noble Ladies and Lords ruling the various Houses, but she finds herself mired in a growing web of murderous plots when the Lady Ariane decides she wants to start a war with the other Houses, and various ‘angels’ (rogue AI programs, spun off into individual consciousnesses when the main God AI was fractured in the catastrophe of the spaceship’s damage).

Ariane intends to be the last chief standing by ‘consuming’. Consuming, or devouring enemies, gives the eater all of their memories through their personality programming (it is not described how this happens in the book, but I imagined implanted chips, wafers, integrated circuits being copied and then wiped). Ariana wants to be Captain, and she wants to unite the ship under her command. Although the Engineers and the first Conn had declared the ship/world unrepairable, Ariane is going to fix it. Somebody needs to do something about moving it away from the twin suns which are flaring.

Rien is assigned to take care of an unexpected captive, Sir Perceval, a modified girl knight with wings, a ‘demon’. But despite her duties and loyalty to her Lady, Rien falls in love with Perceval .

Jacob Dust, one of the angel gods, who really is a programming module of the original ship’s AI, is in a fight for his existence with the other angels, who are also now independent running modules of the original computer. Each angel controls portions of the ship and certain functions which keep the humanoids and the computers alive. He is aware of the House of Rule’s moves, so he begins to plan what alliances he must make with what other Exalts, and temporarily with what other angels, hoping to be the last AI standing when the Exalts have finished their complementary struggle for supremacy.

The similarity between the personages onboard ’Jacob’s Ladder’, all under the sway of computerized, but fragmented, images based on stories from ancient earth literature and myths of Earth, are obvious. Everything is in fragments - minds, body and souls of machine and man alike, as is the broken and damaged sections of the ship, the suns, the original goals of the sect, and the Families. All have the motivation of survival, but with fragmentation there is corruption of purpose, ability - and programming.

The book is fascinating, exciting and interesting, and I was very curious how it would end. Obviously, some readers will be offended by the, to me, social realism of a small group of related people trapped on a broken ship lost in space for many generations. The author’s projection of how people might live with ultimate atomic engineering power of nanobots in their bodies, was truly fun. Since this was Book one in a trilogy, I look forward to where this spectacular universe of people being able to change their sexes and form like we change hairstyles concludes.

Profile Image for Shaun Duke.
87 reviews12 followers
December 25, 2008
Last year I reviewed Bear's Carnival and have had my eye on her since. She's one of those few writers who manages to write science fiction that deals with serious issues that doesn't feel so serious to me--and don't get me wrong, I like serious SF, but it's nice when you can get a story that is occupied both by future ideas and societal issues.

Dust is an unique novel--not necessarily original, but unique. Unlike Carnival, Dust seamlessly merges fantasy and science fiction, making it the kind of novel that can appeal to both sides of the fence. Dust follows Sir Perceval and Rien, two of many inhabitants who have become complacent with their lives on a massive orbiting spaceship. Time there amongst the ship's internal landscapes has led them to create gods out of the ship's AIs, angels out of nanotech-augmented humans, and servants out of those born normal--the makings of a caste system. When Ariane, a princess of Rule, captures Sir Perceval, cuts off Perceval's wings, and consumes her superior--a process that isn't exactly like it sounds--she sets out to start war with the other Houses and take over the rest of the ship by consuming Jacob Dust, one of the ship's gods. When Rien saves Perceval and together they mount a daring escape through the vacuum of space to another part of the ship, she learns that not only is Ariane a danger to the ship and everyone else, but the star the ship orbits as well. The star is dying, and if unity cannot be restored throughout the ship, everyone on board will die...

Dust certainly has an epic feel, as if merging the adventurous feel of Tobias S. Buckell's high-flying Ragamuffin novels, hard science fiction a la Chris Moriarty, and traditional fantasy elements, with Karen Miller coming to mind. But, through all this, Bear's writing style remains relatively unique. This can be good at times and bad at other times. I had some problems getting into the flow of the novel, what you might call the natural rhythm of the writing itself. I can't say this was necessarily bad, though, and probably had more to do with an unfamiliarity with Bear's style--consistent readers of Bear probably won't even notice this. I enjoyed the story, but it was something that I noticed while reading. Perhaps others won't notice it. I would liken it to the experience one might have when switching genre styles, if that makes sense.

What really set this work apart from other novels in the SF/F vein is how perfectly it merges the two genres. Arthur C. Clarke's third law is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and I think this novel is a good example of that law in action. True, Bear talks about what gives the Exalts their power, and even refers to things like AI and computers, but the people living on this ship treat this world and the strange things in it in the same way we might treat magic. Strange creatures exist in the world as remnants of dead gods and some humans have wings and advanced healing abilities. It is, in a way, a fantasy world that just happens to be on a spaceship.

One of the things I like about Elizabeth Bear's work is that she writes stories that are on the outside very much examples of good genre work, but on the inside are stories of forbidden love. Both books I have read from Bear have dealt with same-sex relationships in some capacity and Bear certainly has a handle on these themes. In Dust, Sir Perceval and Rien deal with issues of celibacy--Perceval's choice in order to avoid suitors--and difference--Perceval is an Exalt, one of the super humans and Rien is a Mean, or, to put it simply, one of the normal folks. There is a lot more to their relationship that I won't ruin here, but it adds to the tension as they get to know one another through the course of the book. My only complaint with this relationship is that it didn't feel as developed as in Carnival, though perhaps making a comparison here isn't the correct thing to do.

Additionally, folks with an extensive background in medieval literature, or even a passing fancy, may find this story rich in Biblical and medieval references--particularly references to the Garden of Eden. If you don't notice them, don't worry, because it's not necessary to enjoy the story, but it does add a little depth to the characters. The plot itself harks back to some of the medieval romances, journey and all.

Overall I liked Dust, though it wasn't perfect. The ending needed something more, although I can't imagine Bear could have written it any differently here. Perhaps there is a sequel that shows what happens next? I enjoyed the action and the world she had created, although I think more time could have been spent on the beginning to give it a firmer hold on the overall story--it felt somewhat rushed, though not badly enough to make me cringe. Fans of Bear's work will likely love this one just as much as everything else, and new readers may find this to be an interesting merging of genres with good themes and sympathetic characters--complex relationships exist here too, though, again, perhaps more time could have been spent developing such things (then again, my nitpicking, if taken to heart, might have resulted in a 600-page monster, rather than the 340-page piece that it is). Ultimately, this could very well be a good "ice breaker" novel for folks who haven't crossed over the line to dig into their sister genre--whether they be fantasy readers or science fiction readers. I think in some respects it might work better for the science fiction side, only because of the use of nanotechnology within Dust. I look forward to digging into something else by Elizabeth Bear. Considering how prolific she is, I have a huge selection to choose from, and so do you. Ha!
Profile Image for Jeanne.
962 reviews68 followers
December 9, 2018
“Oh, space.”

Elizabeth Bear's Dust is the first in a frequently disorienting, occasionally downright trippy, always original and thoughtful trilogy that is set in a space colony circling a pair of suns that are dying very, very soon. That will be the end of them all. There are things that are surprisingly similar to my life – they eat quinoa, sweetened with honey and soy milk – and others that are very different. Their world is populated by angels and Exalt, the Mean, resurrectees (zombies), basilisks, necromancers, and memories that extend past time (stored in computers or cannibalized by the Exalt).

Rien, a Mean (a servant), discovers that she is an Exalt who had been hidden in her evil aunt's house. Many of us have dreamt that our real parents are royalty or famous. In our fantasies, this would solve all our problems, but in Dust, Rien has to learn to accept her new life, while remaining true to herself.

Princesses had to battle monsters if they were going to survive, and the monsters inevitably won. If not the monster you fought against, the monster you served.

Or the monster you became.

....Was it better to become the monster, or to become the servant of the beast?
(p. 304).

Rien and her newly-found sister, Sir Perceval, had to find and retain control and autonomy in a very controlling world, among people and beings they couldn't trust (or could they???), among beings who manipulated their emotions and took over their bodies. To survive, they tapped deep stores of courage, remained loyal to each other, even when it didn't make sense to them individually, and risked all.

Dust reminds me of Ann Leckie's strange (but less trippy) Ancillary series or maybe Zelazny's work (read long before Goodreads). There is something to be said to having one's world turned upside down – especially when it is thought-provoking. Or just downright silly (and real). How many of you have had conversations like this with friends?

“Gavin, I don’t mean to complain. But why are we going this way?”

“Because I was instructed by the necromancer to lead you astray, exhaust you, and then gnaw your bones,” he answered, hopping down the other side of the bulge he’d been perched on. “Unfortunately, I only have a beak, which makes it hard to gnaw, so I’m trying to scrape you to death, and in the meantime wasting power so you can see where you’re going. Why do you think we’re going this way?”
(p. 115)

Really, despite the bizarre make-up of this cast of characters, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Read it with a friend.
Profile Image for Kate Sherrod.
Author 5 books80 followers
March 1, 2013
Not since I committed the slight error of letting the Wizard-Knight series be my first Gene Wolfe reads have I been so baffled and yet intrigued by a book as I was as I started Elizabeth Bear's Dust, the first book in her "Jacob's Ladder" series.

Superficially, the two works have a fair bit in common: mysterious, half-mythological worlds strange technology that looks like magic/magic that looks like technology, strong theological overtones*, opaque and ambivalent secondary characters, puzzling and multilayered sub-worlds. Ultimately, though Dust is better regarded as a more accessible version of some other Gene Wolfe work, his Long Sun series, which takes place aboard a generational spaceship inside a comet, governed by "gods" that are software copies of the consciousnesses of various rulers from the homeworld's deep and almost forgotten past. But where the Whorl is one complete world through which characters can travel just like they might have on Urth, Jacob's Ladder, the dying generational ship through which our two protagonists move trying to prevent a catastrophic war, is compartmentalized to the point of atomization, with each sub-world either denying the existence of others or hostile to them. Pseudo-feudalism prevails, with the most important class distinction between those whose bodies have been altered and lives extended via colonies of nanomachinery and those who have not.

As our story starts, an "Exalt" woman (i.e. a person benefiting from nanomachines) from the "Engine" world, named Sir Perceval (don't ask), has been captured in some kind of skirmish and awaits the pleasure of the petty tyrant of another sub-world, the Rule. By a Dickensian coincidence, the Mean (no nanites) assigned to keep Perceval alive turns out to be Perceval's long-lost sister**, Rien, who brings news that the petty tyrant has designs on taking over the whole of Jacob's Ladder and ruling it the way her distant ancestor, the Captain did long ago when the ship actually moved around. Naturally this ambition is inimical not only to the ways of life of every other population on the ship, but to the ship itself, which is just barely held together through the efforts of weird and mutually hostile fragments of the machine consciousness that once ran and directed the ship on its journey of exploration and colonization before disaster struck centuries ago.

Part of the story is told from the perspective of one of these god-fragments, Jacob Dust, who watches events unfold from deep inside the substance of the ship and who is only able indirectly to influence them, through a set of nanomechanical wings he has managed to graft onto Perceval's back to replace those cut off when she was captured. His motives are unclear; his interactions with other fragments intriguing but weirdly directionless, his love for Perceval and Rien infectious. The mystery of what he/it was really up to is what really propelled me through this novel.

And I needed some propelling, because once the setting and situation became clear, so did the fact that pretty much every person or entity on board Jacob's Ladder is pretty repellent, with the possible exception of Rien and Perceval, but sometimes even they are hard to take. And not in that fun, love to hate 'em way. These beings are nasty pieces of work, and descended from even nastier pieces of work, and seem kind of naturally inclined to take decisions that are, well, repellent -- even with the excuse that the deeds they contemplate are necessary for their survival.

Dust has two sequels so far, Chill and Grail, but I don't see myself hurrying to read them anytime soon. Their blurbs indicate to me that the alienating qualities that made me sort of drag my feet in reading Dust are still very much a part of the greater narrative, and I have too many books on the infinite to-be-read pile as it is, you know?

But still -- interesting.

*Though I strongly object to the cover blurb "Can a broken angel save a fallen world?" Even combined with the pleasingly H. R. Gigeresque cover art, that's a pretty misleading bit of copy, and one that put me off the book for quite a while; this is not a religious allegory or bible story in genre fiction trappings, after all.

**Everybody who is anybody turns out to be related to everybody else in this novel. It thus teems with weird bits of dialogue like "Chief Engineer, I need to talk to your about our brother, and our daughter." Um.
Profile Image for Alexis Hall.
Author 51 books10.9k followers
August 11, 2015
This is a sort of sci-fi fantasy mash-up (reminding me, in approach, if not in tone or content of the pulp era before SF and F became such distinct and separate things: it's set on a spaceship but there's lots of the stuff you'd normally associated with high fantasy, like myths, and bloodlines, and politicking. It seems heavily inspired by Medieval romances (chivalry, princesses, etc.) but everything comes back to advanced technology, so the swords are nanotech and the angels are AIs.

I think the most notable thing about Dust is that it's diversity-tastic: bristling with asexual lesbians, err non-asexual bisexuals, genderqueer people, and so on. It's refreshing though occasionally feels a bit LOOK AT ME AND MAH DIVERSITY.

I'm not a big SF reader so the F trappings helped draw me in (the arc is a pretty typical quest narrative) but I did find it pretty inaccessible in times. I prefer my world-building to be low on exposition but, sheesh, does does err on that side of things. Also because it's basically all about the world, the characters can feel a little distant sometimes.

So I guess I admired this more than I enjoyed it. But it was definitely interesting.

Maybe I need a 'do not totally regret reading' shelf or sommat.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
June 9, 2010
First in a planned trilogy called, "Jacob's Ladder," "Dust" introduces
us to a decaying generation ship, stuck in orbit around an unstable
star. Originally the project of a religious cult, both the people and
the AIs of the ship have devolved strangely as the years have gone by.
Now, a last few bastions of people live feudally, at war with one
another, and splintered artificial intelligences believe they are gods
or angels - and are also in bitter rivalry.
In a feudal dungeon, the servant girl Rien is assigned to care for a
mutilated angel - the warrior Ser Perceval. But Perceval tells Rien
that they are truly sisters, and the two girls set out on a quest to
escape and prevent a disastrous war.
Meanwhile, the AIs of the ship begin to realize that they must somehow get the derelict running and away from the star, or all will expire in a fiery inferno...
Profile Image for Mike Finn.
1,177 reviews31 followers
January 13, 2023

This is an original and engrossing version of a 'generation' colony ship gone wrong. I liked that Elizabeth Bear didn't slow down and didn't infodump. She presented me with two strong but vulnerable characters under threat, added a constant stream of action that kept me turning the pages and gave me all the threads I needed to weave my own understanding of this strange world.

The story is enabled by technology so advanced that it sometimes feels like magic but it isn't, it's just broken machine intelligence that has healed twisted, combined with a nanotech-engineered human evolution, tainted by the religious aspirations of the founders of the colony ship and soured by unintended generations spent aboard a stranded ship. It seemed to me that the thinking behind the evolution of the machine intelligence and the nanotech-infested humans was original and rigorous.

The storytelling style contrasts with the hardcore Science Fiction contents. The story is told through the eyes of two young women, estranged sisters brought together when one of them is maimed by the leader of the household in which the other has been raised as a hostage and it is as much a story about the love and loyalty that grows between them as it is about a ship in space. The story is structured as a quest. The two sisters travel through the ship, encountering enemies and allies (although it's hard to know who is which) and working towards a journeying towards a common goal. The result is that, while 'Dust' is a generation colony ship story that I'd normally think of as space opera, the experience of reading the book is much more like reading a sword and sorcery fantasy.

For me, this unusual tension between style and content worked well. It felt fresh and it kept me thinking about what was going on.

For most of the book, I was eagerly turning the pages to see what would happen next but the final few chapters didn't feel as intense to me. The ending was a mix of challenging concepts, intense action and emotionally charged decisions. It worked but I had to work at it.

Even so, I'm looking forward to reading 'Chill' the next book in the series
Profile Image for Natalie.
26 reviews
April 14, 2011
I got about half way through this book before I realized I actually couldn't care less about the characters. I pondered why, because I found the book interesting and it was filled with queerness, which I love in my sci-fi, and the court intrigue was convoluted, as it should be... but as our heroines found themselves in danger I had no sense of urgency. I just felt ho-hum.

So, as I finished the last bit of the book I tried to decipher why I felt like that. I finally decided that the book is not visceral enough for me. Everything, even our experience of the characters' own emotions seem filtered through the intellect. The language was formal as well, which served to distance me from Rien, Perceval and the rest.

I had been thinking that I wouldn't bother with the rest of the series. I read to live a fantasy life and this book just didn't have an emotional pull, so I was going to move on to something else. The the last 15 pages or so happened. I couldn't even tell you what it was that changed, but I suddenly found myself considering that I might like to know how this turns out. Those last few pages drew me in, felt urgent, and I'd wished there were a few more to read.

So I probably will read the second book in the series. I can only hope that Bear relaxes into her character and her world a little more.
Profile Image for Alytha.
279 reviews52 followers
January 8, 2012
Finished Dust by Elizabeth Bear a couple of days ago, and really liked it.

A thousand years ago, a sect left Earth in a huge generation ship called the Jacob's Ladder. After about 500 years, something catastrophic happened, disabling the ship's engines. It was parked in orbit around a binary star and patched up as well as possible, but large percentages became uninhabitable. Another 500 years later, the various members of the Conn family feud against each other in several medieval-like holdes. Through genetic manipulation and nanotechnology, they have made themselves all but invincible, and gained wings and other modifications. The capture of the winged Sir Perceval sets events in motion that will change their world, as the fragments of the shattered ship' AI take an interest in her.

I really liked this book, the first of the Jacob's Ladder trilogy. The worldbuilding reminded me a lot of the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons, especially the Ouster civilisation. The characters are very well-described and engaging.

It's a fast, entertaining read, although it evokes discussions about human nature, and necessary sacrifices. Looking forward to the second volume.

Profile Image for Alex.
59 reviews
July 10, 2016
This was a really good book and I'm conflicted cause there was a lot of stuff that squicked me out but overall I really enjoyed reading it. If you are going to read it be warned for incest and graphic descriptions of injuries, violence and sickness.

Ace rep: One of the MC's was ace. At first I was a little leery because she used the word "celibate" and asexuality and celibacy aren't the same things. But her feelings around asexuality and her orientation did seem to align with asexuality rather than just chosen celibacy. There's also a point where another character suggests that the ace character get 'fixed' and immediately realizes how ignorant that sounds and apologizes, which I liked.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books278 followers
August 6, 2018
Dust is a striking and elegantly told generation ship novel.

The plot combines a coming of age story with a political tale. Our heroine, Rien, begins as truly nothing (the French meaning of her name): a kind of scullery maid, family-less and working for a somewhat deranged faction. She connects with a prisoner of war, a semi-human interloper, and begins her ascent to growth, understanding, and even power. Meanwhile, human factions scheme and move against each other, while the starship's old AIs conduct their own plots. Underneath this all the Jacob's Ladder is decaying, perhaps dangerously so.

A classic generation ship trope is that of inhabitants believing they are in one world, only to discover through a kind of Plato's cave shock that they actually dwell in a void-crossing spacecraft. The 1970s tv series The Starlost and its, ah, related Harlan Ellison novel Phoenix Without Ashes offer good examples of this. In Dust we have something close to that, as Rien - and the writing around her - portray a kind of medieval world with touches of fantasy or science. Part of Rien's character arc involves a degree of disillusionment or genre switching.

The fantasy/medieval world is set up carefully. Names come from the European romance, the Bible, and the British Arthurian tradition. We have quests across magical fields and artifacts with magic powers. There's a necromancer who uses something like nanotechnology or smart matter and nobles wielding magic (advanced tech) swords. Archaic or fantasy language and spelling crops up: domaine. And some awareness of being within a fantasy:
Rien managed to lift her head and repeat herself: “Orphans. Dream of being secret princesses.”
Perceval’s thumbs made firm circles in Rien’s muscles. “And so?” she said. “You are.” (118)
And she is.
“Space,” Rien said. “Is that why they’re squabbling over her? They’re trying to marry an heir to the throne? I’m sorry, Tristen, but that’s like some medieval play.” (196)
And yet that is the plot in question.

Bear really works that genre switching well. Aristocrats are not only more powerful, but have physical changes and affordances denied their minions, in a classic science fiction literalized metaphor.

Dust offers progressive gender politics. First, this is a very gynocentric tale, with women and women's experiences taking center stage. Second, there are some non-binary characters and classes, along with asexuality as a kind of body programming. Third, a lesbian romance is at the story's heart.

It is also very nicely told. Bear doesn't offer infodumps, instead letting us bit by bit into the world's lived experience. And she offers some fine sentences: "From long gashes between her shoulder blades, two azure ropes of blood groped down her back, across her spine." (3)

I was fascinated by the strict class politics in Dust. Socio-economic separation, skill specialization, and advanced technology have led to a carefully reinforced caste system. It's interesting to see contemporary American sf raise such systems as problems, and Bear uses her multiple genres to good effect. Science fiction devices enable the castes, and fantasy, especially the swords-and-sorcery vein, often either simply establishes or quietly celebrates class divides. Dust scries into America's imagination and its material conditions. Note that Rien ascends along the (Jacob's) class ladder. Such is where American class politics often ends up - and did before Occupy, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez.

Recommended. I'm looking forward to the sequels.
Profile Image for Juushika.
1,553 reviews163 followers
July 28, 2021
Reread, 2021: My opinion has changed rather a lot since I first reviewed this. 1) After reading it three times, it's not the least confusing. I love the fantastic/mythic architecture for hard scifi; it makes the world appropriately strange and surreal, and it elevates the emotional scale such that the quickly-formed loyalties, particularly but not exclusively in the central relationship, are convincing. 2) That style and sense of wonder cemented my love of generation ships as a trope. I think about this book a lot: its massive concept and sense of awe fill me with a longing, for rereads but also for more spec fic of this tone. 3) It's amazing how quickly speculative analogs for nonbinary identities date themselves. That's true in The Left Hand of Darkness and it's true here, but it's complicated by Perceval's asexuality and the general genderbending and rejection of sexual norms--diversity which is more ambiguous and less codified/strictly speculative. I wish that level of nuance existed throughout, but appreciate the intent.

Original review, 2008: On a broken ship orbiting a dying sun, an angel is captured and her wings severed. But before her captor can devour her memory and mind, and so spark a war between their two houses, the angel Perceval escapes with the servant charged with her care, her half sister Rein. Together, they journey through the distant bowels of the crumbling ship, trying to stop a war, their every step watched by the divine fragments that have the power to save the ship. Bear's novel is outside of the ordinary: transcending gender and sexual stereotypes, combining hard sci-fi with religious imagery, and above all building a delicately unfolding, layered plot. The novel is so unusual that it is almost difficult to categorize or, at least at the beginning, to enjoy, but all told it is a solidly written, brilliantly imagined book, and I recommend it.

It took me two thirds of this book to decide that I liked it. In part this is due to the fact that I had not read hard sci-fi in some time, but largely it is because Bear's book is unusual even for the genre. Bear combines religious titles and allegory with nanotechnology and similar-but-different scientific evolutions, like genderless individuals and specialized weapons called "unblades." At the onset, this combination is disorientating: it doesn't seem to fit the genre; it uses words that the reader recognizes in a way that the reader does not recognize; in short, it defies expectation. Furthermore, the plot unveils itself in arcs, and each arc reveals more about the story and puts previous revelations into more logical and rational language. As such, the beginning of the story is disorientating and a bit confusing, and while this great unknown does spark reader interest, it makes the book somewhat difficult to judge as good or bad, or even to enjoy.

However, as layers of the plot unfold and unexplained terms are defined, the book comes together and becomes easier to judge and enjoy. The complete story reads well and makes sense: the plot is solid, characters have adequate depth, the settings are intelligently constructed and portrayed, and the quests and final conflict create a satisfying story. Moreover, as everything comes together, the initial confusion and delicate layers of the plot actually improve the book. Working through confusion to understand the plot creates reader ownership, and as a result revelations and events in the novel are like personal accomplishments. Further complications outside the realm of plot, such as atypical gender constructs, the unique setting, and sci-fi technology, all create a distinctive atmosphere and broaden reader's expectations of what characters and story can be.

So while it took me some time to get a grasp on this novel and form any opinion about it, I did learn to enjoy it, and I came away satisfied. Nothing about the novel is exceptional--it did not strike me as a groundbreaking or an incredible book, and as such I don't believe it warrants a five star review. But even if its not exceptional, Dust is an above average novel, adeptly written, skillfully conceived, with something to offer outside of plot alone: a complexity, a transcendence beyond usual constructs. Bear's style is slightly unusual, and so in its way the novel does stand out, inspiring the reader to invest himself and to stretch his mind in the reading. I'm glad that I had a chance to read it, and I plan to pick up more of Bear's books; similarly, I recommend Dust, although it may appeal more to sci-fi fans than other readers.
Profile Image for Mimi.
694 reviews191 followers
Shelved as 'not-interested'
March 28, 2018
Putting this book back on the reread shelf. I feel I didn't give it a fair chance the first time around and it's one of those books that deserves another chance.

* * * * *

This is an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy. The story takes place on a living space ship, but a lot of magic is used throughout and there is a war going on that has roots in mythology. A lost princess with no memory of her past is found living among servants at an enemy house. The rest of the story is about rescuing her and trying to get off the ship.

I really wish I could have liked this book more. Elizabeth Bear's writing style and ideas are interesting, but this book just wasn't for me. Maybe I picked it up at the wrong time and the story didn't grab me because I found myself distracted easily by other books, then having a hard time returning to it. But I'm still interested Bear's writing and will probably try something else by her. Probably the Eternal Sky trilogy, which is a historical fantasy set in a Central Asian influenced realm. All three books have received rave reviews, and I look forward to starting them.

Cross-posted at https://covers2covers.wordpress.com/2...
Profile Image for Richard.
5 reviews
August 28, 2012
Three stars for the following:
- Completing what must have been a very challenging book to write, and
- The setting and premise (I love the lost generation ship trope)

That's where the praise ends, though.

Strike one star for overt, unnatural sexuality. I don't know why science fiction authors apparently believe they cannot produce a good story without sexual situations that reach way past even liberal modern boundaries of acceptability. Likely, it's safer to experiment in one's imagination, a prospect that still makes my stomach heave. My best deduction is that science fiction and fantasy authors, like all authors, know that one law of commerce touches all industries: Sex sells.

Strike another star for sadly underdeveloped characters. So much work went into the setting, the situation, the conflict, even the theory behind the science, but so little into the players in the play.. A measure of their shallowness is how easily I even lost track of who was who, particularly in the convoluted family structure of royalty.

Anyhow, it's a short review. The story is worth the read for the setting and the resolution, but don't expect awesome.
Profile Image for Kerry.
1,511 reviews85 followers
January 11, 2011
I really enjoyed this. I was a bit nervous starting as my experience with Elizabeth Bear has previously left me feeling kind of stupid.

I read and loved Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, but mostly because of the beauty of the prose. I was left somewhat confused about what had actually gone on plot-wise. For that reason, while I own the other two Promethean Age books (Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth) I've never been quite brave enough to start them. I feel the same way about the Edda's Burden books, but since the first is a selection for the Women of Fantasy 2011 Book Club, I guess I'll be giving it a try this year after all.

I was first intrigued by the idea of Dust ages ago, but never actually bought it and started it. So here we are, the first month of the Women of SF 2011 Book Club and Dust is the choice. And finally, I read it.

I'm so glad I did. This time, I actually got to feel kind of clever instead of stupid. As the book revealed more and the world and plot developed, I could see the way the myth and society and near-mystical concept of the world had built out its past. And it was very cleverly done. It was almost as if the book existed on two levels, with the kind of bizarre setting of the present day imposed on the fundamental SF concepts underneath. But it is that intertwining and balance that makes the book such a good read (and so fundamentally Bear from what little of her work I've read). It would have been much less of a book if it had only been the SF tale, and I don't think I would necessarily have liked it. But having that underpinning there gave me something to hold on to and to ground the book for me. With the Promethean Age books I felt like I was trying and failing to grasp air. Here, I felt like I had something solid, and strangely beautiful in my hands, twisted into strange, reality-defying shapes.

For all the the narration switched regularly between Rien and Perceval (with side steps to other characters, especially Dust), this felt like Rien's book to me. We are introduced to the Exalt and the larger world through her eyes and that too may help provide the more grounded feeling I had with this book. Then we have Perceval's point of view to balance Rien's, and yet we find that in her own way, Perceval knows little more of the world than Rien does. So both young women find they way and we, the readers, find ours with them.

The supporting characters were less well developed I felt, but while reading didn't feel that the story was lessened by that. Yet I find I'd like to know more, especially about Tristen. Looking back, I think it is a pity those other characters weren't developed better, but there are two more books for that to happen and I'm pretty sure I'll be reading them. (In fact, when I finish this I'll be off to buy myself an copy of Chill although I don't quite know when I'll have a spare moment to read it.)

Mostly, I'm left with a feeling of something wonderous and peculiar and strange, in all the best possible ways. It's a feeling I'd generally expect to find in fantasy rather than science fiction, and this is very definitely a science fiction novel, which makes me feel like I've discovered a special treat.
Profile Image for Dave Morris.
Author 185 books142 followers
July 30, 2022
"The door dilated" is inspired storytelling, but just because a pinch of salt improves the flavour of a stew doesn't mean you have to tip a whole bag in. This belongs to that school of sci-fi for self-conscious outsiders that barrages the reader with in-world jargon right out of the gate. If they commit, they're in the cult. I gave it a few pages and decided this is what it must be like to mark fifth form English essays.
717 reviews52 followers
November 30, 2008
This book is the first in a trilogy; the remaining two books have not, yet, been published.

I was really rather disappointed with Dust; it showed such promise.

The problem: I think the author was unable to flesh out her definitions of the world, the types of beings, and their relationships to each other. There were/are just too many unanswered questions.

There are so many examples, I won' bother you with all of them.

A frustrating fact. If I'm remembering correctly, all but 2 of the characters in the book are related to each other, and I don't mean cousins and so on. Incest producing half siblings who longed to commit incest, as well. It was just awkward for the plot line.

In the end, the climatic scene fell flat. Why was this particular result the outcome of this action? Nothing made sense. The reader is just supposed to swallow it whole and move on. And then, what happened to the whole other end of the plot line? It just miraculously came together?

Sadly, I will not be reading the rest of the trilogy, unless... I become very bored and have very little else to read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,427 reviews265 followers
August 20, 2012
I was disappointed with this - I expected to like Bear's work, but I didn't even finish this book. The prose is fine, but the characters are bland and interchangeable and the world-building is frustratingly shallow. There are some nice concepts, but I felt like there wasn’t much substance to the story. I just couldn't stay engaged with it.

The plot summary sounds fascinating: the crew of a multi-generational colony ship parked for repairs after a catastrophe 500 years ago, and now their descendants must attempt an escape in a decrepit ship from an unstable binary star system. The ship is populated with winged engineers, hermaphroditic necromancers and robotic basilisks. The crew has nanotechnology which can repair a human body even after death, and the memories of long-dead engineers have been preserved in fruit to be bestowed upon the eater. The ship’s artificial intelligence has fragmented into separate personalities which are warring for control of the ship. It all sounds really weird and cool, but somehow none of it worked for me.

I see that some reviewers are squicked because there’s some incest, but honestly, these people are so genetically modified and nanotechnology enhanced and radiation soaked that I don’t think a little inbreeding is going to have much impact.
Profile Image for Xan Rooyen.
Author 34 books109 followers
July 11, 2014
A fascinating book that meshes elements of fantasy and science together in a seamless blend that will please readers in both genres, I think.

Loved the play on gender, gender roles and stereotypes, but I was even more enthralled by the exploration of a fractured AI consciousness.

The book is beautifully written in true Bear style and I look forward to reading the rest of the books in this series.
Profile Image for Katherine.
Author 8 books54 followers
June 27, 2010
Interesting. Weird. Heavy on the incest. I was going to say that it needed to be developed more (the book, not the incest), but I see there is a sequel. Will keep an eye out for it and report back.
Profile Image for Aliette.
Author 262 books2,002 followers
March 19, 2011
Superlative use of Arthurian mythology, generation ships tropes, and sprawling families. Yes, it all sounds a bit weird, but it meshes wonderfully well.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 331 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.