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Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

Review copy

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