Sunday, 15 November 2009

Elizabeth Bear's Dust

Just finished reading Dust by Elizabeth Bear. It was overall a quite enjoyable book, though I did not find myself particularly attached to any of the characters, not even the protagonists, Perceval and Rien, who perhaps weren't as well developed as they could have been. Nevertheless, the story was interesting, and the world that Bear created is immense and creative - I look forward to seeing it explored more in the rest of the series (Dust is the first book in a planned trilogy).

The story begins with Perceval, an Exalt from Engine, being taken into captivity by Ariane of Rule, who mercilessly amputates Perceval's wings in order to humiliate her. Rien, a servant in Rule, is given the responsibility of caring for Perceval while she is in prison. It is soon revealed to Rien that Perceval is her half-sister, and Rien orchestrates their escape from Rule, thereby saving Perceval from certain death at the hands of the war-mongering Ariane. The two escape and begin their adventure through the intergenerational spaceship known as Jacob's Ladder.

Elsewhere on the massive spacecraft, powerful artificial intelligences, calling themselves "angels", battle for control over Jacob's Ladder. The most powerful of these, Jacob Dust, has an obsession with Perceval. Unlike Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (with which Dust bears a great many similarities), where the ship's AIs are called "gods" because they created a pantheistic religion aboard the ship in order that they be worshipped and obeyed, the reasons behind Bear's AIs being referred to as "Angels" and "Gods" is never clear.

We do, however, discover that Jacob's Ladder was launched as a project of forced evolution - the one paragraph blurb of Dust's sequel, Chill, indicates that the project was orchestrated by a religious cult - though this is not particularly clear in Dust itself, where the mixture of evolutionary science and Judeo-Christian religion is awkward and for the most part unexplained. Furthermore, it is often unclear whether the religious symbolism (e.g. the name "Jacob's Ladder" itself, and the desire to attain "divinity" through forced evolution) is intended literally or metaphorically. To further confuse matters, of the 29 chapter epigraphs (!!), three are from the "New Evolutionist Bible" (apparently a translation of the Christian Bible which actually appears in the book itself) and one is from the "New Evolutionist Funeral Service". So far as I can tell (through much googling), these are entirely fictional creations of Bear. The builders of the Jacob's Ladder, we surmise, must be these "New Evolutionists". Hopefully this will be developed more in-depth in the next two books.

The only other gripe I have is that the ending seemed to come out of nowhere [spoilers ahoy]. When Rien eats the plumb, containing one of the AIs in virus form, she alters the virus and transmits the code to Perceval, and through Perceval's connection with Dust, manages to re-write Dust's programming and free Perceval from his clutches. Upon essentially merging herself with Dust and the virus, Rein's physical body and mecha suit suddenly disintigrate (turn to dust - how poetic, if scientifically implausible), and a new super-powerful AI is born. What I fail to comprehend is how Rien, who until a few days earlier had spent her entire life as a servant, was suddenly able to re-write what must have been the incredibly complex programming of the virus and then re-write the programming of Dust and all other AI in Jacob's Ladder in a matter of seconds. It seemed that Bear was pulling a rabbit out of a hat with this out of nowhere ending (much like the sword out of the hat resolution in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). I had seen no indication that Rien possessed the amazing abilities that she displayed at the end in her defeat / reprogramming of Dust.

Nevertheless, the story was quite intriguing, and enjoyable to read. Bear's writing can be lucid and poetic, though this isn't maintained throughout, and some things, such as the hermaphrodite sex scene and the recurring theme of incest, just made me cringe. Perhaps that makes me intolerant and closed minded, but I couldn't bring myself to get celebrate a romance between half-sisters. I did, however, find the blend of science fiction and fantasy to be fascinating - I love writing that blends these genres (as Wolfe does), and Bear does this very well. The interplay between science and religion in the story had me wanting to read more. I'll have to read the sequel, Chill, when it is released next year.

More info on Dust and Bear's other writing can be found at her website here. Now, to start reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience...

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