Chill is the second book in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy by Elizabeth Bear – the first one was Dust (post). I read this on the plane back from Egypt immediately after finishing Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword (post) which definitely influenced the thoughts I was having while reading it.
It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the plot of Chill in any way at all without spoilers for the end of Dust – but given these are four or five years old now I shan’t put a spoiler cut, just don’t read the rest of this paragraph if it bothers you 🙂 At the end of Dust the generation ship, Jacob’s Ladder, has started moving again. Now that the immediate danger of exploding stars is over the occupants of the ship need to deal with questions like where their destination is. The plot of this book reminds me in some ways of Sherri S. Tepper’s general plot – there’s an Awful Truth waiting for our protagonists about the foundations of their world & society. There are also the remnants of some of the antagonists from last book to deal with, and the repercussions of the decision Perceval et al took at the end of Dust in order to save the lives of the Mean population of the ship.
So one of the themes of the book is consequences, and grief. Living with the result of a decision you or someone else made, because even if it was the best choice there’s always a price to pay. Which also ties into the theme of identity that I picked out in my micro-review last time I read this (post on Livejournal). Where you are now, who you are now, depends on the choices you made and the prices you were willing to pay – and the choices available depend on who you are and where you came from. I think everyone in the story has done things they’d rather not’ve done. Either because who they’ve become changes the choice they would make if they faced that now, or because there were no good choices and now they must live with the consequences of the lesser of two evils.
The ideas about identity were interesting to read straight after Ancillary Sword. Bear and Leckie both explore the idea of putting a different personality into a body, replacing the one that grew there. But they seem to come to different conclusions about how it would work, or more accurately I think they start with different premises about how minds and bodies function. Leckie’s ships have personalities not just in the ship, but distributed throughout ancillaries – human bodies with the mind replaced by the ship’s mind. And the ancilliaries are to a large extent interchangeable – if the ancillary-making process “takes” then each unit is a part of the whole mind. Even the failure that we see leaves a fragment of the mind that isn’t a part of the whole, the original person is still gone. So the premise seems to be that body and mind are separate and putting a mind into a new body doesn’t alter the mind. (I keep saying “seems to” because I think there are hints in the books that whilst the Radch might think it works like that it actually doesn’t but I don’t know yet if Leckie’s going anywhere with that). Bear believes the mind and body to be much more closely intertwined (and I’m inclined to agree). So the multiple cases in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy where we have a mind put into a new body the resulting person is no longer quite the person they were in their original body. Who you are, determined not just by the choices you’ve made but also by the meat your mind wears.
I seem to’ve ended up only really talking about what’s underneath the surface (in part because it’s a re-read not a first time read), but it also has a good surface. I’d be hard pushed to pick whether this series or the Promethean Age books are my favourites of Bear’s work.