In Max Barry’s ‘Providence,’ humanity is mostly useless against an intergalactic threat
Max Barry’s work, even when it wanders the far reaches of possibility, always has a destination in mind, in the same way that gravity draws everything back down. And this usually means that someone is going to crash into the hard facts of failure, or betrayal, or death. This is what makes Barry’s latest novel Providence so ominous, even when it seems nothing is going wrong.
After his debut in 1999 with Syrup, it seemed like Maxx Barry was on his way to becoming his own brand name as a regular delivery system of smart corporate satires. He followed his first novel up with Jennifer Government and Company, both about malevolent businesses using their employees as unwilling pawns. He’s since dropped the double-X from his name. As he said, he was trying to make a point about marketing, but people assumed he was just a pretentious asshole.
Then Barry expanded his horizons, writing sci-fi novels like Machine Man and Lexicon, which he tinged with real emotion. While not as cold as his first books, they share the same sense of inevitablity.
Providence is a space opera that Barry’s set in a time when humanity has made first contact with alien life, and it’s killing us. The salamanders, as we call them, are instantly hostile and incredibly lethal. They’re capable of living in the vacuum of space. They learn from every encounter and can spit exotic matter that rips through flesh and spaceships like soft tofu. This forces humankind to up its game considerably. Earth responds by building giant, artificially intelligent warships called Providences, which require a crew of only four people.
Actually, “require” is not really the right word. The ship makes all the tactical decisions, repairs itself, steers itself, and contains enough firepower to destroy the salamanders from great distance.
The problem is that this isn’t interesting or sexy enough for the taxpayers back home who have to foot the bill for these massive, and massively expensive, warcraft. There are no dogfights, no compelling narratives, no heroes for which to root. It’s like sending a very dangerous Roomba out to deal with an intergalactic pest problem.
This is why the powers that be select the crew of the Providence. They’re four people with interesting personality deficits who are nominally responsible for command, weapons, science, and life functions on the ship, but are really onboard to win public support through social media. They’re meant to be characters that the folks back home can root for, to be the human face of a war that would be better fought without humans.
This is why, in a point that Barry delivers stealthily and steadily, none of them should actually be onboard Providence. Gilly, the ostensible science officer, can never be as smart or resourceful as the ship’s AI, so he does busywork to keep him from melting down. Jackson, the command officer, lost her entire crew during her first encounter with the salamanders, but rather than provide motivation for revenge, she finds herself crippled by PTSD. Anders, the weapons officer, is a selfish, charismatic, play-by-his-own-rules rebel, which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a huge liability in deep space. And the life officer, Talia, is an open wound of need and insecurity, which is great motivation for constant updates about her state of being, but not terribly helpful for actually dealing with the other crew’s crippling psychological problems.
These would all be perfect backstories for characters in a space drama, but they’re not necessary–and in some cases, they’re actively harmful–to the real mission of the ship, which is to win a war.
Of course, the crew can’t help but make themselves the center of the drama, and this turns out to be pivotal to the actual battle against the ever-evolving salamanders.
And at that point, the last third of the book becomes a full-on space adventure that tests the crew to its limits. They overcome their mistrust, and end up behaving very much like the heroes they were meant to be. Plus, there are laser guns and explosions and splattered alien guts everywhere.
But hidden behind the mayhem are the deeper questions of free will, and how much agency any human being is going to have in an age of machines that think faster than we do. In all his books, Barry examines how our creations–corporations, language, machines, and software–rebuild us after we’ve built them.
The plots, both the AI’s hidden agenda and Barry’s, come together in the final battle, which is as satisfying as any number of runs against the Empire’s latest version of Death Star. It all works the way it is supposed to, even in the places where it goes wrong. This is a bad sign for free will, since everyone behaves exactly within the AI’s expected tolerances. Even light-years into the far reaches of the galaxy, people cannot escape who they are.
On the other hand, if you’ve been missing a sense there’s someone intelligent in charge against an encroaching threat to humanity, Providence, at least, provides a happy ending.
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 31, 2020)