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Providence, Max Barry

July 28, 2020

IMG_4109The pun is right there in the title; you know the characters of Max Barry’s science fiction novel Providence are going to be saved by their ship, named Providence. But since the ship is guided by an Artificial Intelligence, is the fact that they are saved really due to providence? That’s one of the kinds of questions you’ll be mulling over as you read this novel, which I heard about from Jenny at Reading the End.

I read Providence in one day because I kept thinking I knew where it was going and wanted to see how it got there…and then it would take a turn. I kept thinking it was like other science fiction novels, and then it was not (although I still can’t resist thinking that some of it could have happened near a planet very much like the Bugger home world of Ender’s Game).

The hostile aliens in this novel are called Salamanders, and not much is known about them except that they exhibit hive behavior and they “are capable of spitting little quark-gluon slugs, which are essentially tiny black holes.” The story begins seven years after first contact, when Providence and her crew are setting off to join a number of other three-mile-long warships designed to fight the Salamanders in space. Because we first meet the crew at a press conference and we hear so much about the importance of how they present themselves to public support for the war effort, we are led to believe that the main purpose of the Providence crew might be public relations.

Talia Beanfield is the Life Officer, in charge of keeping the crew on good terms with each other and putting a brave face on their efforts for the folks back home. We become acquainted with her and Gilly, the Intel Officer, first and in the most detail. We learn more about Anders, the Weapons Officer, later in the story, and we learn a little about the captain, Jackson, last.

We learn a lot about the war effort from hearing Beanfield trot out a well-rehearsed speech about “working to repay the faith that nine billion people across two hundred countries have placed in us” and then hearing her told to “lose the part about two hundred countries” because “some of our international allies are yet to fully discharge their funding commitments for Providence Five.”

When I found out about the projects the human crew are working on because “the ship’s AI controlled almost everything that mattered and was so good at its job that there wasn’t much for [any of them] to do,” I thought this story might be a 2001-style AI takeover. But no, that’s not it, although there are some worrying moments, like when Gilly drills into a part of the AI’s brain to physically damage it so it will register software damage, and then afterwards he finds that the ship has repaired itself, which worries him “because an AI rewriting its own core was a little like a human neurosurgeon opening up his own skull. Any errors could compound, affecting the ship’s ability to recognize that they were errors.”

On p. 190, when I saw the crew was separated and some if not all of them were almost certainly dead, I thought it was a strange choice to go back to before Jackson agreed to assume command of the ship and explore her motives for deciding to join the crew. It made me impatient, because Beanfield, who had been injured and was being increasingly referred to by her first name, Talia, had been left falling into the gravity well of an unknown planet, along with Anders and Jackson, and we didn’t know exactly what had happened to Gilly, although he was in a part of the ship torn apart by salamander black-hole-spit.

Then the story takes another turn. We get to see some of the alien planet, which is purple and orange, viscous and volcanic, and on analysis is “inert….The atmosphere contains oxygen but also sulfur trioxide. The whole place is chemically depleted. Like they stripped it.” For science fiction readers, that trips the alarm that the salamanders might be the kind of aliens that push out into space because they deplete the resources of each planet they come to. But that’s not it, exactly.

We see Gilly on the planet “wondering what had become of Jackson, Anders, and Beanfield” and thinking that “maybe this sun would emerge from behind the cloud planet and cook him alive. Maybe the only answer was that he was an insignificant biological object in a universe of dispassionate physical laws.”

The genius of this novel is that it’s never all one thing or another. The crew underestimates the AI and get into trouble because of it. They think their jobs are make-work until their expertise is needed. Although their roles and the faces they provide for the war effort are important, so is individual action.

Without taking us out of the novel, the author lets us listen in at the end as one of the characters thinks that “you want meaning and purpose. What happened to those people matters because that’s the part of the story you care about.” And of course, that is commenting on the novel itself, too.

Providence features brilliant storytelling, characters you can’t help caring about, and a plot that just keeps getting more exciting.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2020 7:53 am

    Yeah, I loved that all throughout the book there’s this question of “is it X or is it Y” and the answer is always “both” — including the question of whether the AI is using humans to wage war against the salamanders, or the humans are using the AI to wage that same war. It’s a cool trick!

    • July 28, 2020 6:19 pm

      Yes. I think I was influenced by what I was reading when I started the review with what looks like a spoiler but isn’t. I won’t go into detail because that really would be a spoiler!

  2. July 28, 2020 10:28 am

    This one sounds pretty interesting.

    • July 28, 2020 6:18 pm

      It is! It’s the best SF novel I’ve read since The Vanished Birds. I think you’ll like it.

  3. August 2, 2020 6:21 pm

    Looking forward to reading this one! Just have to wait my turn at the library 🙂

    • August 2, 2020 8:13 pm

      I hope you’ll come back and tell me what you think about some of the “turns” after you’ve read it!

      • August 3, 2020 4:48 pm

        I will try to remember! By the time my turn comes for the book I may forget. Are you on Goodreads?

        • August 3, 2020 4:52 pm

          Nominally, but I don’t use it to review or keep track of books.
          I know what you mean about trying to remember to come back. I have started keeping a list of which blogger recommended which book, after someone recommended The Blue Castle and I couldn’t for the life of me remember who it was!

  4. September 5, 2020 1:48 pm

    I read it! I liked it very much, much better than Lexicon actually because all the pieces in Providence worked together so much better I think. It was a real page turner nearing the end. It had all kinds of little surprises, which I appreciated. And what it had to say about war, and humanity, and the media was nicely done without being didactic and in your face. It was really nice to get caught up in the story, that has not happened for me since the pandemic began. Though I just started reading N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became last night and it had me hooked within the first 10 pages 🙂

    • September 5, 2020 1:56 pm

      Yes, what you call the “little surprises” are probably what I thought of as the “turns.” And yes, absolutely what it has to say about war and humanity and the media was very nicely done. I’m glad you liked it too!


  1. Winding Up the Week #132 – Book Jotter

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