Science Fiction and Fantasy

What's It Like to Live on a Stranded Spaceship or a World Ruled by Women?

By Kathleen Ann Goonan
Sunday, April 13, 2008

DUST By Elizabeth Bear | Bantam Spectra. 342 pp. Paperback, $6.99

In Elizabeth Bear's ambitious, if hectic, science fiction novel, centuries of human and A.I. evolution lead to a quest to heal the World. Jacob's Ladder is a decaying ship stalled near an unstable white dwarf. The computer programs that run the ship have become sentient and are also insane, but so are the humans on board.

Jacob Dust, the Angel of Memory, is one of several artificial intelligences -- among them, the Angel of Wires and the Angel of Life Support Systems -- who assume human form and play a game of knight-errantry with their human pawns on this enormous ship.

Rien, a non-enhanced human, is ordered to care for Sir Perceval, a woman whose nanotech-enhanced body gives her various powers, such as instantaneous healing and the ability to survive in a vacuum. Sir Perceval hangs in the dungeon by her wrists, covered with blood because her wings have been hacked off. Lady Ariane Conn, head of the House of Rule, plans to "eat" Perceval -- to absorb her consciousness -- and thus consolidate power. But before that plan can be carried out, Perceval reveals to Rien that they are half-sisters, and restores Rien to her true princesshood with a nano-kiss. They begin their quest for their father through the vast, interlocking environments of Jacob's Ladder, each with its own special perils to be overcome.

As Perceval and Rien experience a series of dramatic revelations, Bear sometimes throws unnecessary problems at the reader. The profusion of similar names, combined with the number of members in what turns out to be a rather murderous family, does not help, particularly in the clipped, urgent endgame, during which the white dwarf threatens to go nova and engulf the ship.

Despite this, Dust is a novel of sharp invention with a conclusion propelled by a love that, in the end, drowns out all distractions.

CAULDRON By Jack McDevitt | Ace. 373 pp. $24.95

Cauldron, Jack McDevitt's 13th novel, is the sixth book in his Academy series, featuring Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, a starship commander who, in the course of her career, has discovered fascinating artifacts of long-gone interstellar civilizations. But no matter how far the Academy sends its fleet, they find no life.

McDevitt's Washington, D.C., of 2255 is surprisingly like our own. Public funding of space exploration has evaporated, a victim, as it is today, of the public's sense that it is a waste of resources. Matt Darwin, a starship pilot turned real estate agent, personifies the wistful tone of the novel as he contemplates a life filled with successful deals but waning emotional involvement.

Enter Jon Silvestri, a physicist who insists that his untested starship drive could take humanity many magnitudes past its current limits, perhaps to the source of the mysterious Omegas, lightning-throwing cosmic clouds that previously threatened Earth.

Cauldron would be somewhat slack except for the continuing curiosity of Hutch, Matt and Jon. "If we stay here, where it's warm and comfortable," Commander Hutchins tells Matt, "we'll die a kind of spiritual death. And I guess maybe it wouldn't matter because we'd probably not be worth saving." They deftly use private-sector investment to get one last chance to find something that might prove the worth of space exploration.

The beginning and end of Cauldron are beautifully linked, illuminating both the journey that lies within the novel and the compulsion of human beings to explore the boundaries of their environment, be it a continent, a world or outer space. Anyone pessimistic about our own space program might take heart in reading Cauldron.

SHADOWBRIDGE By Gregory Frost | Del Rey. 255 pp. Paperback, $14

The Shadowbridge of Greg Frost's sixth novel is a series of endless spans, reminiscent of elevated Interstate stretches, surrounded by sea. A variety of superstitious, conniving, magic-wielding tribes live on these giant bridges. On one of the few islands of real land in Shadowbridge, Leodora, the main character, grows to adolescence believing both her parents to be dead.

Each span has its own folktales, which Leodora's father, Bardsham, collected and dramatized in shadow-puppet shows so powerful that his name is legend. The only person who knows the true story of Leodora's lineage is Soter, a drunk who lives behind her uncle's house and is the guardian of Bardsham's puppets. He gives out information on that lineage only in doses, dissembling to protect himself -- from what, we do not know.

Soter teaches Leodora her father's complex art, and she escapes from her abusive uncle, taking the puppets with her. But women are forbidden to be storytellers, so Leodora becomes Jax, a male, and teams up with a musician. As they travel from span to span, her fame grows, and her true identity as Bardsham's heir threatens them all.

Shadowbridge ends abruptly, yet the energy of the story will pull most readers on to the second part of this two-book adventure, expected in July. Frost has set up a compelling world, brimming with energy and memorable characters.

AMBERLIGHT By Sylvia Kelso | Juno. 260 pp. Paperback, $6.99

The first thing a reader might notice upon opening Amberlight is sprung-rhythm sentences, a poetic form popularized by Gerard Manley Hopkins. They are beautiful in small numbers but hard slogging in the aggregate. Written in the present tense, Amberlight initially demands the kind of attention that takes away from the flow of its story, even when the language is as striking as "Masts curtsy sleepwalker slow, black geometry on pearl-infused sky."

But soon, Tellurith, the supremely competent Head of Telluir House, one of several all-female consortiums that mine the fabulously valuable mineral qherrique of the city of Amberlight, takes center stage, along with an amnesia-stricken man found beaten almost to death. Tellurith rescues and heals him. Their resulting relationship shows the inequalities of Amberlight and drives the increasingly powerful narrative.

This quasi-medieval society of women, ruled by women, gradually comes into focus, but not in a women-would-rule-better-than-men scenario. Rather, this is a novel about economic forces, geopolitical supply and demand, and the human price an unfettered market extracts. It is also about trust and love. By the end, the story flows like a river in flood, rewarding the reader with a resonant conclusion. ยท

Kathleen Ann Goonan is the author of six sf novels, the most recent of which is "In War Times."

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