Friday, August 28, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Space Opera Gem from Elizabeth Bear

Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear (Saga)

This is a long, fascinating space opera in a far distant future in which humans manipulate their emotional moods and attitudes, AI shipbrains have dreams and social obligations, sentient squid-whales live in the vast interstellar spaces, and ancient alien technology holds the key to artificial gravity.

The story begins when Haimey Dz, engineer and scavenger of space wreckage, her pilot, Connla, and their shipbrain, Singer, act on a tip and come across an abandoned, repurposed space vessel (see above alien tech) that has been harvesting the corpse of a squid-whale (see above) to manufacture a costly and highly addictive drug. No sooner does Haimey realize (a) this is a moral outrage as well as a crime; (b) OMG there is artificial gravity here!; (c) she’s been infected with what looks like a glowing fungus-like parasite (see alien tech, above), but (d) aieee! The space pirates arrive to nab their prize.

One thing leads to another as the glowing fungus-like parasite grants Haimey the ability to sense, and eventually communicate with, said alien ships, and the charismatic and amoral female space pirate pushes Haimey to confront her own anguished past. Meanwhile, Haimey wrestled with her programmed adherence to mutual collective responsibility, teams up with a gigantic sentient mantis-like alien law enforcement officer from a low-gravity planet, Singer gets summoned to a term of civil duty, and the cats – did I mention the cats? There are two cats on their ship.

As I said, the book is long but filled with action and reflection that say as much about the different ways of looking at self vs society as they do about Haimey’s long-buried sense of self. It’s all fascinating, if a bit sedate in places, until the pieces start coming together. Then the parts I had previously found slow made brilliant sense and I couldn’t put the book down until the exciting and immensely satisfying conclusion. I say this as an advisory to other readers to hang in there: every piece is there for a reason, and it is richly worth the ride. Ancestral Night is in turns dramatic, thoughtful, humorous, hopeful, and tragic. From the government ship name, I’ll Explain It To You Slowly to the weird and wonderful artificial mind that has wrapped itself around a dying sun, to everything I’ve mentioned above, the book is as much about how we balance individual choices with the greater good, all tied up with a big ribbon and two cats. Worth savoring, and re-reading.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it. Although, come to think of it, fine imported chocolates and roses might have been nice.

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