Review: Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night


I finally finished Elizabeth Bear’s book Ancestral Night a while back, and it’s a really superb work of space opera, one that did a lot of interesting things. It’s set in a distant future where humanity is part of a larger, galactic civilization, and where everyone pretty much gets along. There’s no real big war that’s driving humanity against a plethora of alien civilizations: they’re coexisting as best they can. The novel follows a team of space salvage operators, Halmey Dz, her partner Connla Kurucz, and their AI, Singer. They’ve had a rough go of it in recent years, and they search space for lost wreckage, hoping to score it big. They end up finding a massive alien ship, and a terrible secret onboard, which puts them into the path of a band of space pirates, and galactic authorities. 

There’s a real retro feel to this book, but one with a nicely modernized set of sensibilities. Bear includes everything from commentary about the value of communities, includes plenty of LGBTQ characters, and muses on the nature of intelligence and nature vs. nurture, especially when it comes to augmentation and free will. Halmey comes from a particular cult that focuses on consensus decision-making, and was involved in a terrorist plot earlier in her life, and has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. She’s constantly trying to find her place in the universe, and a good part of the book is how she’s re-learning who she is after a pretty traumatic past. She’s an excellent character, as are her two companions — especially Singer. 

While I loved all of the component parts of the book, there was one big flaw: there’s a lot going on and it feels really unfocused at points. Bear throws a lot of good stuff in there, and I’m not sure it always meshed. At one point, Hamley gets stuck on an alien ship with a pirate, and they spend a lot of time talking and going over her past. It’s interesting stuff, but it slowed the book down, and felt a little out of place — almost like it could have been the focus of another novel set in the same world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t poorly executed; it just feels as though the book could have been slimmed down just a tad. It took me a little longer than I would have expected, given the subject matter and story. Folks who liked Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series or James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will love this one. 

TRSF: The Best New Science Fiction

  While over at Boskone the other weekend, I resolved to not buy much from the convention market, and I was able to hold myself to that. I made a single purchase: Technology Review's 1st Science Fiction magazine: TRSF. I bought it because I'd heard good things: Ken Liu in particular, was a draw, and the full lineup of authors is a particularly strong one: Cory Doctorow, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Bear, Ma Boyong, Tobias Buckell, Pat Cadigan, Paul DiFilippo, Gwyneth Jones, Geoffrey Landis, Ken Liu, Ken MacLeod and Vandana Singh.

What I bought stunned me. Almost every story was gold: brilliant narratives that dripped with ideas, and each and every one sucked me right in while I rode back and forth to the convention on the T.

Cory Doctorow's story The Brave Little Toaster, depicting smart appliances was unexpectedly funny and relevant, while Indra's Web, by Vandana Singh was facinating. Lonely Islands (Tobias Bucknell), Private Space (Geoffrey A. Landis), Gods of the Forge (Elizabeth Bears) and The Flame is Roses, The Smoke is Briars (Gwyneth Jones) all hooked me from the get go, and made me think about the world around me in a lot of ways.

But then there were the stories that are still stuck in my head, ones that I've read a couple of times already: Real Artists, by Ken Liu, where a video student finds out just where the intersection between film art and business lie; Complete Sentence, by Joe Halderman, that takes a really frightening look at the mind and the punishment for crimes could lead (this one reminded me a little of Inception); The Mark Twain Robots, by Ma Boyong, which was a nice, modern take on Asimov's Three Laws; Pat Cardigan's Cody, involving data storage and biometrics; The Surface of Last Scattering, by Ken MacLeod, which was heartbreaking in more ways than one; and Specter-Bombing the Beer Goggles, by Paul Di Filippo, a nice look at apps and virtual reality (fit nicely with the book that I was reading at the time, David Louis Edelman's Infoquake).

The key thing with each book is the uniform quality of each of the stories: while published by Technology Review, none of these stories are necessarily about the cool technology that's available to the characters, but about how the characters have been impacted by the technology that surrounds them. In addition to that, it's not a book that's bound by the borders of the United States, and there's a real international flair in both the stories and the authors, which lends the book a certain credence as well. Each story is excellently realized when it comes to the worlds around them. Frighteningly, in most cases, the scenarios are very plausible, if not around the corner from the present day.

The entire issue is well worth the time to purchase and read through. This is one of those rare collections that's proven it's worth ten times over, and I absolutely can't wait to pick up the next issue. If you're a science fiction fan, you owe it to yourself to give this a read.