“Grail” Elizabeth Bear

Grail is the final book in Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. I’ve posted about the previous two here and here. The first time I read the book I read the first couple of pages, then double checked I had the right book – the start is completely different from what I was expecting! (I should’ve been a bit more trusting, it’s clear by halfway down page 3 that it’s the right book …)

As with Chill it’s a bit hard to talk about the plot of this one without spoilers for the plot of the previous ones. The overall structure of the trilogy is that book one is about beginning (resuming) the journey, book two is making the journey and now book three is arrival. Well, one of the overall structures 🙂 So in Grail the generation ship Jacob’s Ladder arrives at the destination planet they picked out, only to discover that in the meantime humanity has spread and overtaken them. There’s a colony on the planet already, and it’s not clear if they’ll be welcome. Both from the perspective of the amount of resources needed to absorb a sudden increase in population, and from the perspective of how much both cultures have changed since their common origin many centuries ago. The story isn’t just about the meeting and interaction of these two cultures – the antagonists from books 1 & 2 are still present and have their own answers to the question of whether the population of Jacob’s Ladder should settle on this new planet.

Bear again uses the narrative trick I mentioned when I talked about Carnival several months ago (post). Both cultures have things that are familiar to us and things that are not, and the things that the current point of view character regards as Other are often the familiar things. But the stuff they take for granted is often the things that feel alien to us. Of course in this case it’s also a chance for Bear to remind us that these characters we’ve got comfortable with across the last two books would look and feel very very alien if we were actually to meet them.

I find myself unsatisfied with the ending. I can see how it grows organically out of the story so far, and I can see how it mirrors the ending of the first book of the trilogy (a choice made in extremis to save the population by changing them into something else, perhaps against their will). I can even see how it fits in with a central idea of the trilogy – sometimes all the choices suck, but you still have to choose and accept the consequences of that choice. And all three books have endings that involve finding a way to shift the paradigm to improve your choices (however this doesn’t contradict my previous sentence!). I just find it unsatisfying, somehow. I guess perhaps I’d prefer to imagine the two cultures co-existing uneasily and having to deal with each other, than a solution that avoids that?

There’s also a narrative thread that felt like it went nowhere much. The existence of other intelligences than the human ones in this book felt like it was only present to highlight how both human cultures had blindspots and a somewhat hubristic approach to their place in the greater universe. This is as opposed to book 2 where I felt the alien life form gave a sense of a wider and more wondrous universe outside the confines of the Jacob’s Ladder.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, don’t be fooled by the last couple of paragraphs!