I read Max Barry’s innovative, clever, exciting and violent, science fiction novel Lexicon back in 2014 and decided he’d be one of my Must Read authors. I was surprised to find that I’d let seven years slip by between ‘Lexicon’ and ‘Providence’. So much for good intentions.
It turned out that the two books have nothing in common except that they’re innovative, unexpected, violent and filled with unsettling ideas and memorable characters.
Max Barry takes on some very big themes here: truly alien aliens that we can’t reason or bargain with because the only concepts we seem to share are the instincts to expand our territory and to destroy anything not us; sentient AIs that start off helping to fight a war and then unilaterally change the rules of engagement; and an interstellar war sustained by the clever use of social media to keep the public engaged and the tax dollars flowing. He manages to do this while delivering a tense, conflict-packed drama, that kept me turning the pages.
To me, it seemed that he did this by focusing on the four humans aboard the Providence class ship. Between them they represent complex multiple world-views that crank up the tension, drive the action and allow the big themes to be held up to the light. Surprisingly, given all that, his characters feel like real people with strengths and flaws, rather than plot concepts.
Max Barry’s writing is powerful and unforgiving. He never gives his characters a free pass. Sacrifices are real and paid for in blood. Motivations are complex and change over time and sometimes make the characters hard to like. The ending is both brutal and wonderful.
It’s a hard book to sum up because Max Barry isn’t one for simple answers but he does ask wonderfully complex and uncompromising questions.
I recommend the audiobook version, narrated by Brittany Pressley. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.