Providence by Max Barry

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

Six-legged bear-sized aliens living and procreating like bees in enormous hives that float in deep space; a state-of-the-art weaponized space ship; a volatile crew of four; and, artificial intelligence (AI) so evolved that humans are superfluous. Such are the elements of Max Barry’s latest speculative novel – Providence. This is a wild read!

As for the plot, well, there is the mother of all intergalactic wars going on against the Salamanders, who are the bear-bee things; the space ship, named the Providence, is equipped with an AI so sophisticated that it immediately becomes the source of suspicion.  It does everything but speak, another source of suspicion because its actions clearly require explanation.  The four protagonists make up the crew of Providence.  They are highly trained and highly frustrated.  The AI is basically in charge and the crew’s raison d’être is to be media bait for a global PR campaign promoting the war.  For one crewmember, this leads to destructive behaviour and the catalyst for a series of life and death events. 

Max Barry ratchets-up tensions from the first page of the first chapter ‘The Encounter’.  Written in the second person, it is easy to merge with the crowd watching a video of the first contact with the Salamander.  And it isn’t pretty.  The recording acts as motivation to continue the extermination of Salamanders: … when the video finally, mercifully stops, you want to kill salamanders, as many as you can.  

In the following chapter, Barry jumps his readers forward seven years.  The protagonists are preparing to leave Earth for a four-year mission on the Providence to wage war with millions of Salamanders.  

Writing in third person, Barry presents each character’s perspective in separate chapters.  This works well, as they are a variable bunch with complicated profiles, so this structure allows for the nuances of their personality to be developed as the narrative unfolds.  All the characters have in common the knowledge that they are merely passengers, social media personalities sending social media ‘feeds’ to glorifying the war effort in order to garner public support. (That sounds familiar).  As the mission proceeds tension and frustration escalates, particularly for Anders, who is a gun-loving, claustrophobic adrenalin junky.  He has been chosen for the mission essentially for his charisma and chiseled film-star face.  His ‘job’ is to report on ‘Weapons’.  That is to say, to regurgitate what strategy AI has decided to take.  This frustrating lack of action is driving him crazy.

As captain, Jolene Jackson, insists on keeping up military standards insisting all crewmembers are at their stations reporting on AI engagements. Talia Beanfield, taking up the job of ‘Life’, has more to do, as it is her job to ensure everyone stays sane and happy.  Anders is a full time vocation all by himself.  Gilly is ‘Intel’; he does not have a military background but is there as representative of the corporation responsible for the design and building of Providence.  His analytic pedantic nerdiness becomes useful despite AI’s relentless control.  

It’s all going reasonably well; Salamanders are expiring by the thousands as readers become acquainted with the crewmembers.  Barry foreshadows Anders power keg potential, leaving the reader slightly on edge wondering when he is going to explode.   Tensions spiral to another level when a message from base informs them that Providence is going to sally forth into the Violet Zone (VZ).  This is the heart of the Salamander territory, uncharted deep space – no communications with Earth are possible.  This has never been done before and the crew is anxious.  And with good reason!

To say any more might anger author and publishers alike. But to reiterate the above comment – this is a wild read!

Max Barry is an Australian writer based in Melbourne. Providence is his sixth book, which follows Syrup, Lexicon, Jennifer Government, Machine Man and Company.   He is perhaps best known for Jennifer Government and Lexicon.  Jennifer Government, a satiric speculative fiction novel, has been compared with George Orwell’s 1984, and Lexicon was named one of the best ten books of the year by Time. Providence is less cutting edge, but a fun read, nevertheless. 

Providence

 (2020)

By Max Barry

Hachette Australia

Paperback     isbn:  9780733643019     $32.99

e-Book            ISBN: 9780733643026      $14.99

Audiobook    ISBN: 9780733645174      $34.99

pp.299

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