“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!

“Chill” Elizabeth Bear

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.

“Dust” Elizabeth Bear

I bought Elizabeth Bear’s “Dust” about 3 years ago when I read it for an online book club (which has since vanished without trace so I can’t even link to it). I did write about it on my own livejournal so I can link to that first impression. This is another of the backlog of book posts that I’m catching up on (the last one! I’m nearly up to date!) so again I think this’ll be less in depth than I would’ve written had I got to it quicker.

The book at first seems to exist in the space between science fiction and fantasy. The opening scene could almost come out of a pseudo-historical medievaloid fantasy – there’s a Lady, there are knights, a housekeeper, a named sword, and our point of view character is an upstairs maid. But look at it more closely and you see the science fiction – nanotech chains, references to extruded material, beam weapons. The literal blue blood for the Family (the Exalt, the aristocracy of this world) could go in either camp at this point. Reading on it becomes more clear that this is science fiction – the story is set on a generation ship, a spaceship travelling at slower than light speed where the crew are awake and expecting their voyage to take several generations to complete. But something has gone wrong, and the ship isn’t travelling any more and hasn’t been for centuries. A lot (most?) of the crew are Means – they don’t have nanotech symbionts and their lifespans are what we would consider normal. The Exalt are effectively immortal, and so the older ones were alive before the disaster. You might naively think that would make it easier to keep society together and work on fixing the ship. But the Family are split into factions and in many cases more concerned with their internal political games than worrying about anything else. This isn’t helped by the fact that the ship’s AI is also fragmented. With a crisis looming the status quo can’t continue, so at least the AI is trying to regroup and gather itselves together. Of course, it isn’t that easy – each fragmentary personality wants to be the last one standing and will fight with whatever tools it has to achieve that goal.

The first scene also introduces us to the two primary protagonists, who are certainly intended to be tools of one (or more) of these fragments. There is Rien, through whose eyes we see the scene. She’s a teenager, an orphan, a maid, a Mean who turns out to have a rather more Exalted heritage than she imagined (pun fully intended). We also see Sir Perceval, a Knight from Engine captured by the Lady Arianne Conn of Rule who has mutilated her and will kill her. Perceval is also a young woman, but fully Exalt and aware of her heritage, and happens to be Rien’s half-sister. Their story is of a pattern that’s more from the fantasy side of the dividing line – they escape and go on a quest across the world. Both are Chosen Ones in their own way, and together they must try to save their world. No matter what the cost.

It’s another book that feels like it would reward going through with a fine tooth comb and noting all the little details. As with the Promethean Age books names are very important, although in these books knowing someone’s name doesn’t give you power over them per se – this series is after all on the science fiction side of the line. But names, their meanings and the choices behind the names reveal things about the person or object once you’re paying attention (whether that’s you-the-reader or a character in the story). Choice is again a theme. In this story there’s a lot about the horror of having your ability to choose taken away, or your choices coerced. And about how even when you’re suffering the knowledge that you freely chose to pay this price for something you consider worth it can bring a certain strength and endurance.

A good book, I definitely enjoyed it as much the second time around as the first 🙂

“Wool” Hugh Howey

This book pushes so many of my buttons (in a good way) – it’s post-apocalypse, it’s not a generation ship* but in many ways it’s the same as a generation ship. And it’s got that thing that hooks me into Sherri S. Tepper’s books (but without the Moral) – there’s something rotten deep in the centre of the society and half the fun is figuring it out as the characters do. (Not quite as straightforward as it being a dystopia, something about the way the rottenness is set-up/revealed.)

*J points out that he didn’t know what I meant by generation ship, so perhaps I should explain 🙂 I mean a spaceship travelling to another star at below light-speed, and all the people in it are awake, so over the time of the journey there are several generations and gradually the society stops believing in anything other than the ship. Normally in these sorts of stories there’s also some disaster (contrived or natural) that means records are lost.

The whole world that the protagonists know consists of an underground bunker, which has just one set of observation screens on the top floor out of the hundred or so floors. Society has stratified – engineers are in the lower levels and keep the place running but aren’t really appreciated for it. IT are important, and it’s not quite clear why to start with, and they’ve got a whole floor/suite of floors to themselves. The middling floors have the middling people. And up the top are people like the mayor, the sheriff and other officials. And the viewing screens, showing the dead dead world outside.

Resources are limited as you’d expect in that sort of scenario – they might as well be in a spaceship. If you want to have children you & your spouse need to win the lottery after someone dies. And expressing any interest in the outside world is firmly squashed – if you dare say it out loud then you are sentenced to “cleaning”. Out you go in a suit to clean the cameras for the view screens, and die in the toxic atmosphere when the suit inevitably gives way. Everyone who’s sentenced says they won’t clean, and then they do … and the first part of the book ends with an explanation of that, from the point of view of the man doing the cleaning. But there’s something rotten in the centre of this society and we haven’t found it yet, just the first hints.

Not going to spoil the book, that would be a shame. But it does make it a bit hard to talk about 🙂

I liked the way the various characters felt nuanced and real. The character I was least keen on was the chap who seemed to be there just to be the love interest, but thinking about it a bit more he’s actually also doing something useful in the book in terms of showing us what’s going on. So not just the love interest. And the antagonist isn’t a moustache-twirling villain, you can see he’s the hero of his own story even if what he does is repugnant. You can even sympathise with the aims of some of the rottenness – this is a resource limited pressure-cooker environment and wide-spread disorder could be completely fatal. But the methods are not something I can sympathise with even as I can see that it’s being done out of a sense that this is the best way to do it.

There’s an excerpt for the next book in the series (trilogy?) at the end, and it looks like it’ll go back to the beginning and tell us how the world got to the state it’s in in this book. There’s still something rotten at the centre, and we haven’t got there yet. I’ve got that reserved from the library now. (Thinking about buying these, but I think I want to know if the next book is as good first.)