Book review: Providence by Max Barry

Providence – Max Barry

All the SF books I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government, Lexicon) have been very different in style and content, but at heart there always a distrust of higher authorities, particularly ones that are managed and influenced by big corporations. His latest novel Providence seems a little more of a traditional SF space adventure and his usual concerns lie mostly in the background, but they are ever-present in a variety of forms and – perhaps as reality starts to kick in – come very much to the fore as the novel progresses.

It’s certainly not obvious at the beginning of Providence, which relates a first contact situation that humanity has with another intelligent alien race, creatures that they call salamander first discovered by scientists on the Coral Beach studying bacterial growth in space. Let’s just say that the salamander did not come in peace. The ship footage viewed back on Earth is quite shocking. Ever since then Earth has fighting a war in a far-off region of space with four three mile long Providence-class battleships controlled by AI that can kill from five hundred thousand miles away.

Another Providence ship is soon set to join them on a four year mission to help utterly wipe out the salamanders. With an AI doing practically everything, from selecting targets to updating objectives, there is only a four man crew on the ship; Command: Jolene Jackson who captains the ship, Intel: Isiah ‘Gilly’ Gilligan a technician who analyses battle engagements, Weapons: Paul Anders who monitors the ships weaponry and Life Officer Talia Beanfield who is there to keep tabs on the psychological well-being of the crew as well as present an acceptable public face for general consumption on social and mass media.

After a series of operations in engagements against the salamander hives that seem a bit routine making half a million kills with the aliens posing no real treat, it’s beginning to look like the salamander are no match for the firepower and AI technology of the Providence ships, but operations are about to step up to the next level. The crew are send inside the VZ, the Violet Zone, into the heart of the alien space. That means that they will be out of sync with Earth for updates and some of the four strong crew have already been starting to show signs of psychological and emotional strain.

What you see gradually coming to the fore is the matter of humans relying on AIs to make big decisions for them and for there to be come concerns about it. That’s not an unexpected theme in an SF book, but Barry handles it rather differently from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick and with a slightly more cynical eye on our very different modern age. The people who make the AIs are also considered, their development initiated by the promise of prestigous and highly paid government contracts. It comes as no surprise to find out that war is of course good for business, and there are suspicions about who is really responsible for dictating policy. When an AI mind can gather and process information faster and determine outcomes and objectives faster and most reliably than any human however, who can argue against that? But can we trust their intentions are for the best?

Which leads to another theme that Barry approaches well in Providence, showing that it’s much more than just a space adventure of a military crew blasting aliens in outer space. There’s also consideration here for how humanity copes with AI handling functions that people are used to doing; how to keep mentally alert when everything on the ship is looked after by the AI, when even the building of AI is done by AI. There’s a theoretical application of this as AI becomes more intelligent and capable of taking over and being better at traditional tasks, but it would be a mistake to think that there’s anything human about its logic and thought processes.

Conversely there’s also a practical real world now consideration of people being treated as abstract problems to solve and manipulate like business models. War is not only good for business but for keeping people in line. “The real war isn’t out there. It’s down here.”

Barry is definitely not a fan of life coaching platitudes, corporate indemnity and the lack of accountability of those who use people this way. What he is good at is keeping this situation simmering beneath the surface of a space adventure where threats are always just around the corner, and they come from more than just alien attack as they get considerably closer than five hundred thousand miles away. There’s a lot of room for things to go wrong and Max Barry works his way thrillingly to where the greatest threat of all lies, and it isn’t out there, it’s down here.


Updated: Apr 23, 2020

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