Today, I finished the science fiction novel Chill by Hugo and Sturgeon award-winning author Elizabeth Bear. Unfortunately, when I checked it out of my local public library, I didn’t notice that it was the second installment in the three-part Jacob’s Ladder series.
The series tells the tale of a generation ship, a proposed means of crossing interstellar space by having a space vessel carry multiple generations of people across long distances at relatively slow speeds. It’s a trope that’s very familiar with science fiction fans.
Ms. Bear did something new, but it was hard for me to figure out exactly what, since I was coming into the story in the proverbial middle of the second reel.
Apparently the generation ship, Jacob’s Ladder starts out in the first novel “Dust” trapped in orbit around a doomed star, using its resources to replenish the ship’s damage. I don’t know how that works, and like I said, I’ve never read the first book.
At the beginning of “Chill,” the star has already gone nova and the ship is riding the concussion wave away from the destroyed star, with both ship and crew severely damaged but capable of self-healing. However, life on board this ship more resembles a feudal civilization with warring clans using high tech armor as well as swords, and assisted by AI manifestations, many fragments of the original “angel” that served the Captain in running the various “Heavens” (biospheres) nurtured aboard “Jacob’s Ladder.”
I had a tough time getting into the book for almost the entire first half of the story. I couldn’t figure out the characters and their relationships with one another, them apparently being long-lived on the order of centuries, in spite of this being a generation ship. Then too, issues of reincarnation or resurrection came up with people rising from seeming death, sometimes with their personalities intact, and sometimes not.
The novel is almost totally devoted to the pursuit of a powerful traitor and murderer by a clan called “Conn” who apparently have a rather lethal reputation themselves.
The book is both linguistically and thematically dense, so I was worried I was missing some subtly hidden, theologically-based message beneath the plain text, especially since I didn’t have the first novel to rely upon for background.
But what novel with angels and heavens would be complete without a demon, which is exactly what is confronted at the climax of the story. However, there were two major reveals (which I won’t give away) that changed what I thought would be the outcome.
I found the second half of the novel easier to read, but perhaps that’s just because I finally managed to wrap my brain about the tale being related. That said, although it’s a unique take on an old SciFi theme, it was a lot like watching hard science and magic attempt to co-exist in a cohesive universe. That’s not impossible, but it’s tough to successfully pull off.
Ms. Bear has earned some impressive accolades, but in this story, I found the characters difficult to access, and it was all but impossible for me to mentally map the generation ship. That last part may be by design, but I needed to be able to connect to the environment as well as the main players, both human and AI (the latter being rather gender fluid depending on the needs of the human(s) they served), and by the end, I wasn’t sure I knew them any better than when I started reading the book.
A friend of mine at work was convinced by my description and thumbing through the paperback to get a copy of the first novel, but I’ll probably hold off on that. My reading list is vast, and once I cut it down some, I may circle back to “Dust” to find out how this all started, and then wind up with “Grail” to see the resolution, however, I’m not in any hurry.
But there are other books to get to in the meantime.