Providence, Max Barry (Putnam’s 978-0593085172, $27, 320pp, hardcover) March 2020
I tend to create whimsical schools of writers in my own mind, where none necessarily exists in real life. Thus, I place Max Barry in a class with such folks as Ned Beauman, Karen Russell, Nick Harkaway, Matt Ruff, Reif Larsen and others: a clade of “Pop Culture-Savvy, Slipstreamy, High Concept, Maximalist, Always Pioneering New Territory Weirdos.” As silly, nebulous and over-broad as this label is, maybe it will convey some of the exciting qualities these writers share.
Barry’s new novel, Providence, fully inhabits such a category. Distinct from all his previous ones, it’s a blend of Starship Troopers, UK cult TV show Red Dwarf and the cinematic Alien franchise, with Barry’s own unique slant and voice.
We are in a future era—say, fifty to one hundred years ahead of 2020—about which we learn, actually, very little, for the concerns of an ongoing war dominate everything, and also because the venue of our narrative is going to be extremely circumscribed, literally and in its priorities; also our cast of players is commensurately tiny, offering only limited perspectives on their era.
But in any case, this world has FTL travel, and pretty soon there’s a First Contact. The aliens, eventually dubbed “salamanders,” are inherently and implacably hostile. They kill by a unique method.
The salamander’s face splits open…It makes a movement in its throat, which has since been named for the noise it accompanies: huk. [It has spit] little quark-gluon slugs, which are essentially tiny black holes. They leave behind a trail of mangled matter…
After witnessing the initial slaughter of kindly human ambassadors, we jump ahead to a time when humanity seems to be winning the war against the salamanders. A fleet of enormous battle-ready starships, the Providence class, has taken the fight to the native territory of the aliens, who seem to occupy not planets, but artificial “hives,” located at various random points in interstellar space. The Providence ships, run by very clever but non-self-aware artificial intelligences, each have a crew of four humans, who are present mainly as operational backups—and also as media-friendly faces for humanity’s self-esteem.
Our focus is on the crew of the newest war vessel: Isiah “Gilly” Gilligan, the techie; Paul Anders, the warrior; Jolene Jackson, the captain; and Talia Beanfield, the life-support expert. The last-named also secretly functions as crew psychologist, tracking the behaviors and mental health of her comrades during the four-year mission.
However, two years into their intermittently deadly cruise (a section that occupies about the first third of the book, during which we learn all the important parameters of the war and the emotional mechanics of the crew interactions), after effortlessly wiping out all the salamanders they encounter, things start to go wrong. Anders begins to go screwy, as does the ship’s AI. And the salamanders exhibit new refinements of strategy that eventually pose a mortal threat to the crew and their ship. How the humans react in the face of these challenges forms the last two-thirds of the tale.
Barry alternates between two modes in the first third of the book: up close and personal, and interspecies aggressive. The mediacentric fakeness attendant upon the reality of the war effort and the neurotic tics of the crew are pure Barry Malzberg riffs. One might be reading a successor to Malzberg’s Galaxies or perhaps Moorcock’s The Black Corridor. It’s amazing how potent this trope of the demented, deracinated space voyager from the New Wave remains, and Max Barry gives it a robust airing-out. For instance, seeking stimulation, Anders and Gilly begin playing ninja games in the corridors, hurling sharp metal stars at each other and ending up in the medical bay’s automatic doc box. Meanwhile, Captain Jackson is dreaming of taking over control from the AI, while Beanfield, the sanest, nonetheless compulsively runs counterfactual scripts in her head.
But the novel is not all psych games. When the battle klaxon sounds, Barry shifts into suspenseful military-SF mode, delivering tense and suspenseful depictions of warfare. His speculative elements are top-notch, as is his technological gadgetry. And when we eventually get a peek into the salamander home world, his crafting of their ecology and culture surprises and astounds.
When everything goes pear-shaped midway through the book, the ratio between the two narrative modes shifts, with a preponderance of taut action scenes outweighing the still-relevant, but back-burnered inner-space stuff. Yet the interpersonal dynamics that have been set up earlier do reliably contour the climax.
As in Ender’s Game, ethical matters involving species survival and genocidal impulses play a part in the tale. And as with Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, we see how warfare can come to dominate a whole culture and can warp the normal routines of society. Finally, as in Will McIntosh’s Defenders, we realize how the tool that is created to solve a problem (the Providence ships) can become a new problem of its own. But ultimately Barry is concerned with a kind of existential testing of his quartet of poor little warriors. Confronted with cosmic conundrums, will they crack or transcend? Human nature proves multiplex and invariant even when the human is submerged in a pit of salamander slime.
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