Ian Mond Reviews Providence by Max Barry and Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Providence, Max Barry (Putnam 978-0593085172, $27.00, 320pp, hc) March 2020.

Max Barry and me, we go way back. The year was 1999, and I was undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Publishing and Editing at RMIT (because apparently a Master’s degree in Phi­losophy wasn’t attractive to prospective em­ployees). It’s there that I first met Max, though not in person. Instead, the class was given the task of editing the first chapter of a soon-to-be-published debut novel, Syrup, by Maxx Barry (he went with the extra “x” in those halcyon days). There was something so fresh, so distinc­tive, so funny about that opening chapter that rather than do the assignment, I asked Maxx’s editor – who was present – if I could obtain an early copy of the novel. She said no. It didn’t matter though, because from that day on I read everything published by Max (now sans the “x”), whether it be the quick-witted and satirical Jennifer Government and Company, Max’s online serial Machine Man (where I patiently waited for each weekly instalment), or Lexicon, a dark and edgy high-concept thriller, reminis­cent of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. And now I have the pleasure of reviewing Max’s sixth novel, Providence, his first foray into military SF and space opera.

Following a first contact situation that goes violently wrong – viscerally described in the second person – Earth declares war against the alien “salamander,” a species that thrive in deep space and “are capable of spitting little quark-gluon slugs… essentially tiny black holes [that] leave behind a trail of mangled matter.” Humanity’s response to this existential threat is to construct the Providence-class spaceship, an indestructible, artificially intelligent death ma­chine so horrendously expensive that only four have been deployed. But now, with much fanfare and excitement, a fifth battleship – the Coral Beach – is ready to join its comrades against the salamander swarm. Four astronauts will crew the ship’s multi-year mission: the no-nonsense Captain, Jolene Jackson, lone survivor of a previous salamander massacre; the dashingly handsome and headstrong Weapons Officer, Paul Anders, always chasing the next adrenaline rush; the bubbly and personable Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, who monitors the psychological health of the crew; and the socially awkward IT guy, Isiah “Gilly” Gilligan, an employee of Surplex – the Company that built the AI – and the only civilian onboard. Based on the success of the program, with reports of no human casual­ties (but plenty of dead salamanders), the crew have complete confidence in the Coral Beach, and, provided they don’t go insane with boredom as the AI gradually automates their roles, they should be just fine.

Given how science-fiction tropes – time travel, parallel worlds, sentient spaceships – have saturated popular culture, it’s difficult to know whether a contemporary author, even one within the field, has been directly influenced by source material. But as I note above, Max and I go way back, and that includes meeting him in Melbourne at Continuum 4 in 2004, where, on several panels, he demonstrated his fan credentials. I can therefore say with some certainty that when Providence evokes the work of “Doc” Smith (the galactic scale, the bristling weaponry), Clarke (a possibly homicidal AI protecting its core functions), Heinlein (the bug-like aliens), and Bradbury (the increasing levels of paranoia amongst the crew), it’s entirely deliberate. To this fusion of familiar ideas, Barry adds his own patented eye for satire, namely the revelation (minor spoiler) that the ship is capable of looking after itself without human intervention; that the crew are a public relations ploy to justify the budget-breaking cost of the Providence program – “that was why all of them were here – not because they were good soldiers but because they made a good feed. They sold a good war.” It’s a masterclass in cynicism that’s made all the more chilling when you consider that the Providence fleet has been tasked with wiping out an entire species.

Providence‘s greatest strength – apart from being terrifically entertaining – is its charac­ters. The astronauts are initially depicted with basic character traits – hard-nosed (Jackson), bright and bouncy (Beanfield), neurotic (Gilly), reckless (Anders). But as the narrative toggles between the astronauts – mostly following Gilly and Beanfield, but with contributions from Anders and Jackson – we flashback to pivotal, sometimes traumatic moments in their past that explain, rather than justify, their quirks, neuroses, and insecurities. These deeply etched flaws are then contrasted against the cold and calculated motivations of the salamanders and the Coral Beach, leaving the reader to ponder what constitutes sentience and self-awareness: is it a function of intelligence and the ability to adapt to changed circumstances, or is it some­thing far messier and irrational? It’s Barry’s empathy for his characters, his willingness to dig deep into their foibles, that distinguishes Providence from most of the golden-age science fiction that inspired it.

Hearts of Oak, Eddie Robson (Tor.com Pub­lishing 978-1250260536, $14.99, 272pp, tp) March 2020.

When I listened to Doctor Who audio-plays (pub­lished by Big Finish), the writer whose stories I looked forward to the most – aside from Rob Shearman – was by Eddie Robson. You always knew with Robson that he’d deliver a high-concept, tightly plotted story with a sense of humour and a delight in the unexpected. Those qualities are evident in Robson’s debut novella for Tor.com Publishing, Hearts of Oak.

The set-up is intriguing. In a city that’s con­structed entirely from wood, and where the King takes advice from a talking cat, the lead architect, Iona, is on the verge of retiring. But when a young woman walks into Iona’s office, seeking one-to-one sessions with the architect, Iona is taken aback, not so much by the request but by the hat the woman accidentally leaves behind:

The texture of the hat triggered something in [Iona]. As she felt it she heard the word felt in her mind, but she knew it didn’t mean felt in the sense of feel, it was… what the hat was made of. Iona didn’t know how she knew that. It was a dream word.

This one moment, this impossible hat, will lead Iona on a journey that will see her question the very nature of her reality.

Hearts of Oak is an ideas-driven mystery where part of the enjoyment comes from attempting to figure out the truth before the penny drops for the characters. It’s also a novella (really a short novel) where the shape of the story changes dramatically as the plot unfolds, and where the opening chap­ters bear little relation to the climax. As Robson demonstrated with his audio-plays, he has a strong knack for pacing, an understanding of how long he can string the reader on before he needs to show his hand. But more than just nailing the plot-beats, Hearts of Oak is also a smart piece of writing, exploring (and I need to tread nimbly around spoilers here) our tendency to go with the flow, to rarely question our highly ritualised lives, or the banality of our day-to-day existence. It’s books like Hearts of Oak, stories that instill a sense of wonder, a thrill for the strange and the outlandish, that brought many of us to the genre in the first place. I loved it, and so will you.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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