Dust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way more sensawonder than any book I've read this year (including Zelazny's Lord of Light and M. John Harrison's Light). But the characters were ciphers to me through the first two-thirds, and I'm positive that I didn't get any of the allusions fully. Still, I shall do my best, and talk about the elements that occur to me in order.
First, the science fiction. This is a broken-down generation ship novel, and the ship itself is a glorious bit of world-building. It is the world to its inhabitants, but they're under no pretenses that it is also a ship, and they curse accordingly -- Space! is the usual ejaculant, and the Enemy of vaccuum is present in several wonder-and-horror-tinged E.V.A.s. The ship is enormous, and much of it is dead, and what is left alive is incredibly strange, full of both nanotechnology and plain old terrestrial biology run amok. The people who set out in Jacob's Ladder (the ship's name) loved tinkering with genetics (for reasons explained about a third of the way in which I shan't spoil but which have bearing on the next section) so the humans now on board are split into the Exalt -- people whose blood literally runs blue due to their nanotech symbionts -- and the Mean, baseline humans who are forced to serve. The Exalt have clearly played with their genetics, many being winged, or furred, or otherwise altered, but even the Mean are not quite humans like us, as Bear makes it clear early on that there are at least three genders present -- men, women, and kant, the ungendered. (She invents new pronouns for the kant: "hir" and "sie" which function well enough but when first presented look unfortunately like typos.) And there are any number of artificial intelligences running around, greater and lesser ones, some diffuse throughout the ship, others contained in rather unlikely places (like a laser-torc that is also a basilisk, or a nuclear reactor leak).
And running through all this SF coolness are biblical and Arthurian and gothic allusions that make the novel look and feel quite a bit more like high fantasy. One of the two protagonists is called Sir Perceval, and she (I did mention the gender-bending, didn't I?) is also a celibate knight on a quest; the Exalt, as mentioned before, are literally blue-blooded and have split what remains of the ship into domaines which they rule through primogeniture; and the A.I.s are referred to as "angels" and all (except one) have taken (or were given? it's unclear) names straight out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But this is NOT fantasy dressed up as science fiction. It has all the trappings of a quest fantasy because it draws on those sources that quest fantasy evolved from, but these characters chose them consciously. The Exalt created their high-tech Medieval world, and their ancestors built the Biblical A.I.s, and the fact that there are two different sets of referents being used by two classes of individuals (the Exalt and the A.I.s) is totally consistent and meaningful. This is a consciously feudal future, one where terms like "Exalt" and "angel" are thrown around divorced from any sense of reverence or religious connotation (but again, not without a meaning that I don't want to spoil).
There are also all the social SF elements -- this is the future, and one of the understated ways Bear makes sure we don't forget that is the way their mores are not our mores. There are the three common genders, and there's a double-gendered individual (I couldn't tell for sure, but I don't *think* that was a common thing; there weren't special pronouns for the single double-gendered person so I'm assuming that that choice isn't common, though it didn't particularly surprise or apall the characters who met him/her/hir); there's sexuality of all stripes presented matter-of-factly, including incest (after all, if there's no worry about inbreeding leading to monsters. . .); there's also cannibalism as a matter of course, because an Exalt who consumes another Exalt gains access to their identity -- memories and personality included. And yet alongside that cannibalism everyone appears to be very casually vegetarian, because humans are wonderful at maintaining two mutually-exclusive world views, and I wouldn't expect that to be any different in the future.
Did you notice that this is only a 342-page novel? That's a lot to unpack, and that's one of the reasons I was engaged but not enthralled through the first 200 pages. Bear never hands the reader information -- all this world-building was accomplished without a single info-dump, and without any of the characters having those terribly awkward "As you know, Bob" conversations. But getting all that across and moving the quest along left less time than I would like to get to know the characters. Bear starts the novel at the last possible second (as you should, but as very few authors do, preferring to give their readers a few introductory chapters to make sure they're solidly grounded in the world and the people and the power structure) and that unfortunately means that I didn't have a clue why Rien and Perceval were acting the way they were at first. I had some guesses, and my guesses ended up being right, but it took 200 pages for me to be really comfortable in their skins, to feel like they were acting rather than reacting.
Once I was there I was with them body and soul, and the ending kind of floored me, but it took a while.
OK, it's another tale of a generation ship---So? But this isn't just another tale of a generation ship. Elizabeth Bear has added some filips of the finest kind. Would you like wings so you could fly like a bird? Would you like to be impervious to radiation, with phenomenal healing powers? Would you like to be able to see around corners or be able to manage machines by thinking at them? Would you like to be able to acquire knowledge by eating an apricot instead of slaving over books for decades?
See what Bear has in store for the travelers on the good ship Jacob's Ladder.
First in a planned trilogy called, "Jacob's Ladder," "Dust" introduces
us to a decaying generation ship, stuck in orbit around an unstable
star. Originally the project of a religious cult, both the people and
the AIs of the ship have devolved strangely as the years have gone by.
Now, a last few bastions of people live feudally, at war with one
another, and splintered artificial intelligences believe they are gods
or angels - and are also in bitter rivalry.
In a feudal dungeon, the servant girl Rien is assigned to care for a
mutilated angel - the warrior Ser Perceval. But Perceval tells Rien
that they are truly sisters, and the two girls set out on a quest to
escape and prevent a disastrous war.
Meanwhile, the AIs of the ship begin to realize that they must somehow get the derelict running and away from the star, or all will expire in a fiery inferno....
This was ... intense. I'd describe it as space opera gothic, sort of like what I'd imagine life is like aboard Alastair Reynolds lighthuggers, especially if one broke down.
The setting is Jacob's Ladder, a generation ship that is in orbit around a binary star, one a red giant the other a white dwarf. A white dwarf that is stealing mass from its companion and is about to go nova. The ship has been in orbit long enough that things have broken down aboard and factions have coalesced around Command and Engineering. This is a more up to date version of a generation ship with AIs (angels), uploads and nanotech. Also, the crew is split between the Exalted (nanotech enhanced and literally blue blooded thanks to a dye), and the Mean, the unenhanced.
Our viewpoint characters are Rien, a Mean serving woman in the Command faction, and Perceval, an angel (human modified for flight - no feathers though) knight defeated and mutilated by Ariane (the leader of the Command faction). From there our two characters discover they are half-sisters, escape from Command and begin to adventure - very aptly defined as being in deep trouble far from home. And oh yes, the world is about to end in a nova.
Some of those troubles include three angels - Samael (life support), Jacob Dust (ship libraries) and the Angel of Blades (name of which escapes me). A necromancer. And family.
Its interesting, its neat and I think I'll read it again soon. My only gripe is that its the first of a series.
I kept putting this book down, thinking "That's just too odd" and then picking it up again. About halfway through, I skipped to the end. And then I went back to the middle and finished it. It's definitely worth a try, and you might really like it. Ms Bear is a talented writer, her characters are vivid, and the plot is a definite twist on a standard story line.