Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dust - Elizabeth Bear

Dust is an absolutely intriguing novel. At heart it’s a journey tale, following our heroes as they strive to settle the many, many problems around them. But it’s also a character piece – the physical journey a transporting medium for the associated internal changes for the protagonists. Alongside these, it’s a story happening in a unique environment, and one which we see a fair amount of throughout the narrative. There’s some overtures to hard science in here too, as is typical of Bear’s other work.

The environs of Dust are medieval, creaking, and have more than a hint of a system in the grip of terminal entropy. Societies exist which depend upon technological systems, and those systems are in decline. There’s a sense of sprawling societies, but ones which are constrained. In a generation ship which has been gradually falling apart for millennia, there is no room to grow – though plenty of room to iterate. Societies have formed around functional groupings, struggling to jury rig functional patches, holding the vacuum at bay whilst human society falls apart.

Alongside this, there’s also a sense of humanity on the cusp of evolution. There are individuals with seemingly transhuman powers, with strength, speed, and associated longetivity, enforcing a caste system over those individuals left manning the broken craft – a medieval world, in the shattered remnants of a technological marvel. The logic of these talents is handled subtly, and well, and if we aren’t usually sympathetic to these scions of privilege, we can at least empathise with them.

Our protagonists are sisters, of a sort. One a creature of born privilege, maimed and thrown back out into a world which she’s determined to bend to her will. The other a surprising scion, previously one of those small common people that make up the majority of the ship’s population. Both struggle to define themselves, and one of the great facets of this text is watching them, if not clash with each other, then share experiences, and create new understandings between them – a blending of family and social caste which displays weaknesses in both, but also accentuates their strengths. Both are a delight to read, really – heroines given a firm agency, and sent out into the world.

They’re both, by turns, feisty and thoughtful people, and disruptive products of an environment which encourages conformance to the existing social order. In this, they’re aided by a sprawling supporting cast. Most of these we don’t see in too much depth – but they’re there, providing colour and a broader context for the world.

An exception is the ship AI, now a league of personalities at war with each other, each a small god in its own area, and constrained by its programming. Each of those seen is livingly portrayed, with an amount of depth and nuance which makes them as real as the ‘people’ that they spend much of their time manipulating. They’re creepy, occasionally terrifying, and splendidly alien, with an uncanny valley where they attempt to simulate humanity which actually accentuates their strangeness.

The plot is a march to save the ship from the outside world and itself, and a quest for survival. It’s also a coming of age tale. There’s some snappy action pieces in here, and some wonderfully tense moments, often achingly stretched out in dialogue which feels both natural and the slightest bit strange. There’s a certain slowness of pace to the earlier sections, counterbalanced by that time being spent learning the context of the world – by the mid point, it’s ramping up, and the period from there to the dénouement was almost impossible to put down.

Is it worth reading? I think so. It’s a clever sci-fi piece, with a lot to say about humanity, and rather more to say about people, in a wonderfully evocative setting. Give it a go,  especially if you enjoy generation ships or transhumanism!

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