Max Barry follows up his masterful novel Lexicon with Providence, a thrusters ahead on one-quarter impulse sci-fi read that should have been set at warp 9.
Providence has Barry successfully channeling Robert A. Heinlein with his world-building and embedding Starship Troopers – the novel, not the movie – at its core. The alien antagonists are bug-like creatures called “salamanders” that are not driven by conquest or dominance, rather, are following their DNA code to eat and reproduce.
The story focuses on four astronauts – Talia, Gilly, Jolene, and Anders – and documents their two years in space traveling through the vastly-unchartered Violet Zone. Their mission is to stop as many salamanders as possible. And they are good at their task. Rather, their AI-controlled ship Providence controls everything with stellar performance reviews all around. The reader becomes a passenger to the crew’s strange personalities and their coping mechanisms as each chapter alters the focus and viewpoints. After all, when stuck in space with the ever-present possibility of being salamander chow, coping mechanisms are all ya got.
Providence shares universal themes yet definitely retains a close alignment with those in Starship Troopers – survival, the dominant programming of DNA, the fallibility of technology. However, Barry avoids the political statements Heinlein aggressively used. In doing so, also removes that deeper level swinging the Providence pendulum closer to the Verhoeven movie yet avoids the gratuitous cheese. Barry’s foursome are complex, driven, characters. They are conflicted and contemplative yet all share the same level of civic virtue and duty. Again, similar to Heinlein’s Johnny Rico.
Lexicon was a truly original piece focusing on a secretive group that can use a hidden language to manipulate people. Barry manipulates the reader as well, playing with time, shifting the goals of key characters while providing intelligent, imaginative sci-fi. Providence is both straight and shallow.
If Lexicon was akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien – new, breathtaking, fearless – Providence is Cameron’s Aliens – a fun, wild ride but at its simplest, an action flick. Providence is standard sci-fi fare.
Providence succeeds in questioning the future of warfare, be it against alien salamanders in the deepest reaches of space or different tribe here on Earth. The need for the appearance of war is both unique and mandatory. Barry reflects on those needs and delicately adds how social media plays into the war machine. After all, if AI is calling, and making, and aiming, the shots what role do human casualties play? An idea that Heinlein would counter. If only Providence took those notions interstellar.
Thanks to Max Barry, NetGalley, and G.P. Putnam’s Sons for the far-flung read.