RogerBW's Blog

Ancestral Night, Elizabeth Bear 10 March 2020

2019 space opera, first in a projected series. Haimey Dz is the engineer on a salvage tug; her latest job uncovers both a terrible crime, and alien supertech.

So one level of this is space opera of the working-stiffs school: great big events are happening and our heroine's at the pivotal point of them, but she's just trying to do the right thing rather than setting out to be be a hero. At the same time this is a world in which people can adjust their neurochemistry at will, and there are questions of what it means to be you… especially if your memories are also to some extent adjustable.

The thought of being in the same quadrant with an unattended antimatter bottle gave me an uncomfortable shiver. So I adjusted my chemistry and stopped thinking about it. Then I had an uncomfortable shiver about adjusting my chemistry so reflexively. You can't win.

While the main power, the Synarche, does this quite a bit (including in criminal cases), the Freeporters don't. There's a certain amount of arguing about freedom versus controlled conformity… all right, there's quite a bit of this, and it works surprisingly well.

There are people, even now, who manage to elude rightminding to the point where they enjoy their pleasures more if somebody else suffers to provide them.

So why didn't I enjoy the book more? I think it's trying to be too many things; there's the salvage tug story, the universe-changing tech story, at least two different philosophical arguments, but none of them really has enough focus. I would say "enough space", but that's not it; the book is 160,000 words long, which should be plenty of room. But an awful lot of those words are repetitious, not really establishing any new points but reinforcing the old. On long flights, Haimey reads nineteenth-century novels, and finds herself thinking:

They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on.

…and I got a certain amount of that feeling here too. Furthermore, Bear admits in an afterword that the book took four years to write, and there's a lack of precision that kept pushing me away even when there were interesting things happening.

Singer said, "Government is either imposed with force, or it derives from the will of the governed. But it's a social contract, right? It exists simply because people say it does. It's not a thing you can touch."

"Neither is consciousness," Connla said.

"You're encouraging him," I said. "Fly the tug, so we don't die."

I liked the philosophising, and I liked the action, though as in dual-narrative stories I found it distracting when asked to switch from one to the other. I liked the writing, when it got on and did something.

I tried not to think about the fact that I was eating living animals and not tank-grown meat. It was a survival situation, my ancestors (barbarians) had done it for millions of generations, and anyway they probably had like three ganglia to rub together. The shrimps, not my ancestors.

All right, Haimey has pretty much the standard personality for female protagonists these days: practical, tough, snarky, emotional issues, troubled past. Yes, all right, Mouth in The City in the Middle of the Night starts in the same place, but Mouth has changed substantially by the end of the book, and in any case isn't the sole voice; Haimey reaches some major understandings about herself, but ends up in terms of personality more or less where she started.

I bumped, got a little magnetism in there to turn off the inconvenient brain bits for an hour or so, and set a timer lockout so I couldn't do it again until after the first dose had worn off. That last part is pretty essential if you're doing this sort of thing alone, because once you turn off your common sense and ability to assess consequences, it turns out almost nobody wants them back again.

It works, mostly, except where it doesn't. If you can just fall into the writing and come up for air every few hours, that's probably a better way to read it than my experience of being frequently reminded that this was a work of fiction that could have used a bit of editorial distillation. It does at least stand alone and come to a reasonable conclusion; it was only after I'd finished it that I discovered that Bear's writing more in this universe.

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