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Dust by Elizabeth Bear

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On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change….

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield even after she had surrendered proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.
~~~~~
Dust is the start of one of Bear’s ventures into far-future space opera; the multi-award winning, genre-hopping auhor started the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy back in 2008 with this by-modern-standards-short 300-page novel. So let’s dive into it…

…or rather, be dropped. Dust opens at full throttle, and within the first two pages we’re introduced to the feudalism of Jacob’s Ladder, to the level of technology (writhing nanotech chains!), to the distinction between Exalt and Mean (albeit not in detail), to the agendered Head (zie/hir); Bear doesn’t believe in As You Know, Bob passages, but nor does she always believe in easing you into a world, and Dust demonstrates the brilliant power of that approach. The opening sets the stage for the rest of the novel where one has to puzzle out the various aspects; Bear won’t explain what she’s doing for her readers, instead assuming intelligence on their part, and that pays off really well, especially around the Angels and the geno-politics of the Conns.

The plot is driven by a number of those factors; Dust is (reportedly – I wouldn’t know!) hard science fiction that takes on a number of the tropes of epic or high fantasy adventures; Bear has the servant who suddenly discovers she is nobility, the quest to get a Maguffin to solve the problems of the world (that’s a reductive description, mind you!), the picking up of a ragtag band of companions along the way, and the travels throughout all sorts of places and overcoming various different perils. Dust does all that but in science fictional trappings and with the brilliant skill Bear is known for; there is no clear morally superior force involved here, there is no clear side for which we should be cheering despite the protagonists’ sympathies. It’s an interestingly achieved tightrope walk with more sides than a die, especially as the different agendas of the protagonists become increasingly clear, and the complexities are admirably handled, including a number of unexpected twists towards the climax.

The characters are a real strong point of the novel. From the naive servant Rien, unexperienced in politics and yet still a key figure in them, through the upright Knight Errant Sir Perceval, to the Angels Dust and Samael, this is a novel of personalities; mixed, varied, strong personalities. Dust has a huge cast and yet every single character is distinct and has a unique voice. This is especially important in noting that Bear distinguishes very well between the Angels, which are essentially AIs which are bounded by all sorts of things and with their own agendas, and the nanotech-enhanced humans, who still think in a somewhat nonhuman way; that ability to evoke nonhuman and posthuman thought-processes is absolutely brilliant.

This is also a book that demonstrates the extent to which Bear’s frequent comments about queerness being the norm for her are true. Dust has a lesbian character, who has a relationship with an intersexed woman; it has an asexual woman; it has polyamory; it has an agendered character – and none of these are presented as being an issue, they’re all just people, having their relationships and existences affirmed rather than questioned or attacked by the narratorial voice and the other characters. It’s a beautiful thing to see in a wonderfully diverse, female-led cast, although some aspects of it – the gendering of the AIs – are odd.

All in all, Dust really demonstrates the potential of space opera; an absolutely brilliant generation ship story from Bear.

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2 Comments

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    From talking with Bear and listening to her about the book, this series is her attempt at playing in a number of genres, and liberally borrowing from the lot of them. She’s a scary enough talent that, rather than falling flat, it works stunningly well.

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