29 May 2008

Locus Magazine's Russell Letson reviews Elizabeth Bear

from Locus Magazine, May 2008

Dust, Elizabeth Bear (Bantam Spectra, 978-0-553-59107-1, $6.99, 324 pp, pb) January 2008. Cover by Paul Youll.

Dust is the opening volume of a new three-book sequence by Elizabeth Bear, a genre- and gender-bending mixture of fantasy motifs overlaid on a very-high-tech lost-starship scenario that had me thinking of Karl Schroeder and Roger Zelazny right away. As in Schroeder’s work, Clarke’s-Law magical tech enables the fantasy elements, so that artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and nanotechnology account for the creatures, powers, and weapons that would otherwise be enabled by the supernatural. And as in Zelazny, complicated and sometimes ferocious family dynamics figure prominently in the character relationships.

The title character is one of a number of ‘‘angels’’ at odds with each other for control of the disabled starship Jacob’s Ladder, orbiting an uncharted and unstable binary star. But Dust and his angelic rivals are early on revealed to be AIs, nanocolony-based fragments of the original ship’s mind that survived the ship’s near-destruction — departmental intelligences with particular gifts and interests. Dust, for example, was the library and thus focused on remembering, while Samael the Angel of Death originally managed life support. Angels contend, compete, and sometimes consume each other in a struggle to see which will be ‘‘the last demiurge standing.’’

On the corporeal/biological level, the crew has also fragmented over the centuries, and departments have devolved into competing clans and fiefdoms with a class structure of aristocratic, nanotech-enhanced Exalts and ordinary-mortal Means. In this lost-starship tale, everybody seems to know that they are on a lost starship and that the miraculous powers they employ are technology-rooted. The story’s motifs and memes, however, are unembarrassed neomedieval fantasy with a decided Malory/Mabinogion flavor. In fact, Dust enjoys the ‘‘high Gothic poetry’’ of the seemings and settings he assumes, though there’s a hint that the whole setup has been dictated by the human hierarchy.

Rien (‘‘Nothing’’), a Mean orphan servant girl in Rule, rescues from torture and death Sir Perceval, a defeated Exalt knight of Engine whose wings (wings?) have been cut off by her captor. The situation is complicated in a number of interesting ways, chiefly that Perceval is a young woman and Rien’s half-sister, but neither fact — or the later revelation that Perceval has chosen to remain chaste — prevents Rien from falling in love with her. When Rien manages their escape from the Rule dungeon, Dust takes the role of fairy godfather. He starts by providing Perceval with replacement nanotech wings (reporting to and controlled by him, though) and Rien with a nanotech colony that raises her to physical if not political or social Exalt status; and leads the pair to a healing garden (which is also a library) where they acquire such useful adjuncts as a talking-animal-analog companion and the spirit (that is, the recorded personality and expertise) of a certified Hero, a long-dead original ship’s officer.

The rest of the story is built on a voyage/quest armature, as the sisters must journey to Perceval’s clan territory, which means passing through various strangely transmogrified parts of the ship and encountering its equally strangely changed denizens.

The retrofitting of science fiction machineries on the medieval-romance chassis is much of the fun, as when Perceval explains the meaning of errantry to Rien:

It is incumbent upon the knights of the realm to patrol, to keep peace and enforce the rule of law.... We also go out looking for damage, and mend it where it can be mended.

Similarly, the maximum-deadly ‘‘unblades’’ were once surgical tools and the talking-animal companion Gavin proves to be a considerably upgraded laser torch who sometimes sleeps with his tail plugged into an electrical outlet. Other rationalized fantasy motifs include trees whose fruits contain lost knowledge or even dead souls, a necromancer (who is also a hermaphrodite), a genius loci or two, and an infernal underworld of radioactivity. There are even zombies: Exalts (like angels) do not completely destroy their enemies but eat them, incorporating the knowledge and powers contained in their nanotech colonies, sometimes leaving behind ‘‘resurrectees,’’ functioning bodies lacking ‘‘the spark, the anima — whoever had inhabited the fleshly carapace.’’

The shipwide crisis that surrounds and conditions the story of Rien and Perceval, though, is thoroughly science-fictional, as are the ship’s original mission and purpose (cleverly hinted at by its name and some of the chapter epigraphs). It will be interesting to see how the fantasy/romance-to-SF proportions are maintained as the series develops. The precedents as well as this initial entry suggest that this kind of game will provide many volumes of ingenious fun.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the May 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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