Dust is the first book in Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder trilogy, and the first of her books that I have read. I joined a "Women and Science Fiction" online book club this year because I've been wanting to read more science fiction in general, and SF written by women in particular. This is the first time since I finished grad school that I've had a deadline imposed on my reading, and I'm pleased to say that I very nearly finished the book on time! (The same statement probably applies to a lot of my grad school reading assignments.)
At some point in the distant past, a spaceship was launched from Earth carrying a wealth of genetic information. An accident stranded the ship in the orbit of a pair of dying suns, and over generations, its still-functioning parts became self-contained and estranged from one another. In the kingdom of Rule, at the end of the suns' life, a serving girl by the name of Rien is assigned to look after a genetically-enhanced angel, Perceval, who has been violently stripped of her wings by Rien's employer. Perceval names herself Rien's sister, and persuades the girl to help her escape Rule. Their goal is to return to Perceval's home in Engine to stave off an imminent war within the ship's ruling Conn family, of which they are scions. Unknown to them, their journey is of avid interest to the fragments of artificial intelligence that control what remains of the ship, including the scheming Jacob Dust. The crumbling ship itself is in direst jeopardy from the impending supernova, and they must find a way to reunite its components and escape before everything is destroyed.
Dust was an up-and-down read for me. I had a great deal of difficulty even writing the description above. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and some of the concepts, especially the elements of fantasy in the science fiction setting, but the execution wasn't as fluid as I would have liked. I felt like Bear could have taken a longer time to explore some of the characters' motivations. I do realize that this book is the first in a trilogy, and some of the things that are bothering me could be resolved in Chill or even Grail. However, as some readers pointed out on the discussion boards, Dust really feels self-contained.
The concept of the "generation ship" (in which the people on a ship at launch give way to their descendants as they cross distances in space) as a trope was unfamiliar to me, but came up quite frequently in the discussion. That common language is definitely the sort of thing that I'm in this Book Club to discover! It's particularly interesting that I read two books in the space of a few weeks that included the generation ship concept (the other was The Knife of Never Letting Go).
The language of the book is often startlingly beautiful, and seems to be filled with double meanings. Those who are not genetically enhanced are called the Mean--both those who are in service, and those who are average. "Rien" means "nothing," in French, and the family name Conn derives from the naval vocabulary of earlier centuries. A person who "has the conn" has the command of a ship. I am certain there are any number of allusions and references, particularly biblical, that I missed in the maze of Bear's words.
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