by Elizabeth Bear
Review by Carolyn Frank
Spectra Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553591071
Date: 26 December 2007 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The memory portion of a fractured artificial intelligence (AI) aboard a broken generation starship orbiting a dying sun, Jacob Dust is a noncorporeal entity seeking to salvage his world. But dust can symbolize numerous concepts, many of which are dramatized in this artful rendition of a familiar science fiction trope. Each chapter is headed by a phrase or couplet from American/English literature featuring dust or a related concept, and many more such quotes are included than even an avid reader might think exist.
The descendants of the original passengers and crew of the generation ship, Jacob's Ladder, have evolved into two parallel lines. The descendants of the passengers, the presumed future colonists of the destination world, are the Means, working as servants and workers in the remaining functioning areas of the ship. The descendants of the crew, the Exalts, have taken advantage of applied genomics and over the centuries turned themselves into angels with wings, to take advantage of the low gravity nearer the outside of the starship, or multi-limb creatures, to more easily perform technical or engineering tasks. The Exalts have further fragmented between the former bridge crew, the House of Rule, and the Engineers.
The descendants of the original captain are now battling for supremacy, to become captain and lead the effort to escape this doomed way station in their journey. However the various portions of the original AI are also battling among themselves to reunify the AI. Each side of each battle takes on allies, or possibly just tools, as they wage a hotly fought effort on many different levels.
The three main protagonists are closely related females: Ariane, the Princess of Rule; Percival, the angel Engineer serving as a knight; and Rien, a servant in the House of Rule. In Ariane's quest for the captaincy, she has captured Percival and chopped off her wings. While Percival is in chains awaiting her most certain death, Rien is sent to feed her and provide minimal care. After Percival recognizes her as her half-sister, Rien manages their escape. As the various portions of the AI take sides, the ongoing actions ratchet up the stakes.
Building on the standard science fiction standbys of generation starships and dying dwarf stars, the author flavors in some current 21st-century science: nanotech and advanced genomics. These concepts serve only to add layers to the story, keeping the intriguing characters center stage. The plot twists are engaging, as are the descriptions of the devastated starship environments. Well-written modern science fiction intended for a broad audience, this book is highly recommended reading.