Chill

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Jacob's Ladder #2
Publisher: Spectra
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 0-553-59108-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 310

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Chill is a direct sequel to Dust, dealing primarily with the aftermath of the climactic event of the earlier book. Bear makes very little concession to readers without knowledge of the previous book, so you won't want to read this one without reading Dust. Preferrably, one should read it immediately after Dust; I read it more than two years later and struggled to remember what had happened. But more on that in a moment.

The exact details of the first motivating problem of Chill would be a spoiler for Dust, so suffice it to say that the generation starship has been significantly shaken up. All the power structures have changed, far fewer people are "in play," and the biosystem is no longer under control. The world of the characters has been forcibly shaken out of hundreds of years of complacency into a very uncertain future, with a new Captain who is unsure and possibly emotionally unsuited for the job.

On top of that challenge, which continues to play brilliantly with the SF trope of the lost generation starship, Bear adds additional complications. The characters are forced to re-explore their world in a way that leads to some deep surprises, as well as many opportunities to explore the interaction between advanced technology and genetic engineering. We find out the source of the Exalt technology now that it has wider ranging implications for the world than ever before. We also find out a great deal more about the background and original purpose of the ship.

As with Dust, the background is wonderful. The characters were a bit more of a struggle.

The largest problem for me is that Bear expects the reader to remember Dust quite well, including lots of important personal revelations that I'm not sure I got out of Dust on the first reading. Much of the focus here is on more secondary characters from Dust, and we're thrown deep into their emotional trauma without much re-explanation of their past history. I suspect this would have gone more smoothly if I'd read Chill closer to when I read the previous book, but as is I kept feeling more confused than emotionally engaged.

It doesn't help that one of the ideas Bear is playing with here is extended lifespans and various types of reincarnation and their impact on people's accumulated emotional traumas and personal relationships. It's a very interesting theme, but appreciating the emotional impact requires keeping a lot of genealogy and connections in one's head. I struggled with that. It's rare that I say this, but this is a book that could have benefited from a geneology chart, or at least a dramatis personae.

The technique Bear uses the most frequently here when exploring character reactions is an oblique reference to prior trauma or emotional upheaval while focusing on the character's emotional reactions and the outward signs of their inner struggle. If one recognizes and can provide all the context from that reference, this works very well. The background gets out of the way of the story, providing just enough of a hint to remind the reader what's going on but letting the reader focus on the emotion. But if one has to puzzle out the reference, it blunts the effect considerably. For me, at least, the intellectual puzzle of figuring out references and relationships is nearly mutually exclusive with emotional engagement in a character's reactions. For as long as it takes me to puzzle through the former, I miss the impact of the latter. Throughout Chill, this created a distancing effect for me, which meant I was rarely sucked into the emotional reactions of the characters like I was in Dust.

That being said, Chill is worth reading for the world background alone, and once I got myself oriented with the characters, I became quite fond of several of them. Bear also does a good job moving the overall series plot forward without falling into a second-book hole.

If you liked Dust, definitely recommended, although I think this is a somewhat weaker book. I highly recommend re-reading Dust immediately before reading Chill if it's been a while since you read the previous book. It will add to the experience considerably.

Followed by Grail.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-09-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21