by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Jacob's Ladder #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 2007
Printing: January 2008
ISBN: 0-553-59107-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 342

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The lost colony, the generation starship, and particularly the merger of both in the lost generation ship are some of the richest settings in science fiction. One can list off the strengths of SF and find a place for each of them: extrapolation of a different social structure under the constraints of space and a non-native world, the hard SF puzzle-solving of survival in space and the mechanics of a ship, the cognitive estrangement of survival skills and ship discipline become rote and tradition, and of course multiple opportunities to bring into play AI, biology, starships, and all the beloved scenery of science fiction. Postulate sufficient periods of time and a certain sort of social structure and one brings the epic feel of fantasy into play: the interplay of politics, roles become titles, the influence of bloodlines, generations of change and rivalry, and advanced technology indistinguishable from magic.

It's rich ground, but also well-trod ground, with seminal works having laid claim to large areas of the landscape. One writes such backgrounds in the shadow of such wildly different authors as Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, and Iain M. Banks, not to mention the fantasy writers too numerous to name who have filled their worlds with fallen civilizations and lost technology.

Against that background, you should take this as a high compliment: the setting of Dust is brilliant.

This is, as quickly becomes apparent, a lost generation starship. The Jacob's Ladder is huge, damaged, and fragmented, split by a deep division in the crew that has calcified into essentially warring states. It's complicated by ship systems that have themselves broken into warring parties and split a different way by a sharp dichotomy of class. The Mean are normal, unmodified humans. The Exalt live symbotically with nanite colonies in their blood, giving them perfect memory, enhanced knowledge of their surroundings, immortality, and significant protection against physical harm (in a wonderful touch, because of the nanites, they literally bleed blue). All this has been going on for so long that, for the Mean, it's simply the way of the world. But crisis is coming fast.

The book opens with an Exalt prisoner of war and the Mean girl assigned to feed and clean up after her while she's imprisoned for execution. The opening is simply spectacular. I've rarely been more engrossed in a book by the first couple of chapters. Bear introduces the class conflict, weaves in the politics, lays the groundwork for the world background in startling and memorable images, and puts the reader thoroughly on the side of Percival and Rien from the start. And then we meet the enigmatic Jacob Dust, our window into the larger picture and the fate of the ship as a whole, who is fighting a war of his own and whose dry tone immediately won me over.

This was the best opening for a book that Bear has written and also the most cinematic. Bear's books often hinge on painful struggles of character, choice, consequence, and price; while that's present here as well, Dust is also full of brilliant set pieces and moments of awe. And this is awe in the classic SF sense: the first glimpse of the spaceship from the outside, the moment of perspective when one realizes the significance of expending reaction mass into space, the entry into Engine. It's the first time in a book by Elizabeth Bear I found myself wondering what a special effects blockbuster with a huge budget could do with this material.

Some of this is simply excellent sentence-by-sentence description, but a lot of the power of the setting comes from effective use of the generation ship perspective. Bear throughout walks a tightrope between the mythic overtones of a fantasy world descended from technology and the engineering problems of a long-term space habitat that retains technology. Dust is a fascinating mix of both that creates a balance in the center different from what I've seen in other books. Everyone in this book knows perfectly well where they are. The memory of location has not been lost, and the technology isn't strange. But the purpose has been partly lost, as has some of the skill and nearly all of the mobility. So when Rien leaves Rule for the first time, she sees the world with an awestruck freshness that draws the reader in, without suffering from an ignorance that turns the book into a "name the technology" game. Bear's careful use of nanites as pervasive but not overwhelming technology helps considerably with this balance, providing a technological actor that's still understood but not entirely under control. The careful balance between myth and physics impressed me throughout.

Character and plot, unfortunately, are weaker, although this certainly isn't apparent halfway through the book. The first half of Dust was quite satisfying, blending world exploration with a tentative and tricky relationship between Percival and Rien. But as the characters are swept into the larger plot, I started feeling like I was missing some emotional grounding. I understood Rien's feelings, but at times I didn't feel them as strongly as I wanted to. And most importantly, at the same time that I was finding out more about the world and Rien was acquiring a new breadth of knowledge, she felt more and more emotionally detached from her world, from her background, and from nearly everything except Percival. Since Rien was my emotional touchstone (Percival comes into the story a bit too privileged and then spends much of the latter part of the book effectively sidelined, making her better as a supporting character), this hampered my emotional connection with the people of the ship. In brief, the climax of the plot, as emotionally-driven as it was, felt a bit too detached and ungrounded to be fully satisfying.

Part of why, I think, is the choice of thematic plot driver. Dust is a book deeply concerned with conquest, merging, and absorption. The theme starts with Ariane's conquest and threats against Percival, dominates Jacob's outlook, characterizes the war between the Exalt, and is the expected outcome of the war between the angels. It makes sense, in a world whose technology is this driven by nanites, but it makes for a relentless simplification. People are absorbed and cease to be, the characters contract, ideas overlay and unify, and the number of players is relentlessly reduced. This mostly doesn't happen to the main characters, but still it heavily colored my view of the world. Since the characters also moved relentlessly forward (no meaningful return to Rule, Head never appears again after the first few chapters, and whatever other life Rien had before Percival is left behind), I felt like the emotional context that informed the actions of the characters disappeared from the book before I could understand it.

I'm not sure what would have helped. Flashbacks for Rien perhaps. More stories from Percival about her own life. Maybe something else entirely. But without that grounding, Rien's sense of distance and isolation from her world became more acute. I wanted to have as much emotional investment in the world as I had awe, but it never came together. Gavin, the basilisk, was for much of the book a major exception, a piece of the world that Rien could have an emotional connection with separate from her connection with Percival. But even there, I was very disappointed in the revelation of Gavin's identity; it made him somehow ordinary, another variation on the people we'd already seen in the story, instead of the something uniquely different that he'd felt like up until then.

I don't want to sound too negative here, since the plot is certainly serviceable, with a solid and meaningful climax and a great setup for the next book in the series. Percival and Rien are excellent characters, even if they weren't as grounded in their world as I would have liked, and I loved the way their relationship develops. And the setting and set pieces are so exceptional that the book is worth reading for them alone. I just wanted it to be even more; I wanted the setting to go hand in hand with a book that would grab my emotions and not let go. It isn't that, but it's a great setting, well-executed, and worthy of being named with the genre's great generation ships. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.

Followed by Chill.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-02-01

Last modified and spun 2015-09-13