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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Max Barry

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Providence

Title: Providence
Author: Max Barry
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 303 pages
Availability: Providence - US
Providence - UK
Providence - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing scenario; entertaining action

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 27/3/2020 James Lovegrove
The Guardian . 13/3/2020 Eric Brown
New Scientist . 1/4/2020 Sally Adee
The Times . 27/3/2020 Simon Ings

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) quirky, character-driven commentary on the mechanisation of conflict and the sheer perversity of human nature." - James Lovegrove, Financial Times

  • "Barry brings his skills of characterisation and satire to the fore in his depiction of the starship's four crew members and their perilous journey into the heart of the Salamanders' empire. Barry delivers some stunning action sequences and provides a bittersweet resolution." - Eric Brown, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Providence is set in the not too distant future, and opens with a short scene which relives the first contact mankind made with an alien species; it did not go well. The novel proper then begins seven years after that fateful encounter. An all-out effort has been going on to defend earth -- by going on the offensive, with spacecraft sent into deep space (as the aliens are not an imminent, nearby threat) to seek out and obliterate the aliens -- creatures referred to as salamanders, because that is what they resemble -- and their hives. The charge is now led by a new class of spaceships, called Providence, and Providence tells the story of the journey of the fifth of these mammoth space vessels and its (planned) four-year mission.
       A Providence is an amazing piece of technology. It is enormous, for one -- three miles long -- though for all that the four-man crew still has cause to complain about a lack of room: "it was the smallest enormous spacecraft you could imagine". It is also completely controlled by an elaborate artificial intelligence (AI), computing power that can -- and does -- do everything, from repairing any damage to the ship to navigating -- choosing destinations, routes, and speed -- to engaging in combat -- from plans of attack to what weaponry to deploy. Indeed, the awkward secret that the crew has to accept is that human input is not only frowned upon but actually basically impossible: there is no need even for this skeleton crew; they're entirely superfluous. The AI makes all the decisions, as:

It sucked in unimaginable quantities of raw data and produced decisions that were optimized and more nuanced than any human could manage. They would be notified once it had made up its mind, and have just enough time to scramble to station and strap in.
       Indeed, really the only reason there are any people aboard is because putting a human face on the frontlines of the battle against the salamanders makes the whole very, very expensive program an easier sell to the human population back on earth -- which is, after all, ultimately paying for these costly war games. (The military-industrial complex has become an even more obviously military-industrial-technological one, and with one big company at the heart of the operation not everyone is on board with this single-minded pursuit whose by-product happens to be the consolidation of a great deal of power and very advanced technology in the hands of a few.)
       The AI was also responsible for the selection of the four crew members, Anders, Beanfield, Gilligan ('Gilly'), and Jackson, and one of the questions readers -- and the members of the crew -- soon have is how the hell did it make this selection. Jackson comes with heavy baggage in the form of being one of the survivors of the catastrophic Fornina Sirius incident, where the salamanders decimated a human attack-force -- which has also left her with a lingering lack of faith in relying on AI:
You know my opinion. Keep software out of command. I'd rather have nothing than have a computer I can't trust.
       Then there's Anders, claustrophobic and aggressive, whom no one could imagine getting selected -- "The process was guided by AI, but not even software could be that perverse" -- not even him, as it turned out:
     He had gone a little crazy in the last months before they shipped out. He had kept expecting someone to say, Wait, we're sending Paul Anders ? That's a mistake. But no one did. No matter how much of an asshole he was, or how clear he made it that he was unsuited to the role, they remained intent on sending him out on a spacecraft -- a spacecraft, for fuck's sake
       On board, Gilly is long kept on the move with lots of busywork, even as the others are well aware that it's all pointless: the AI and its worker-crabs fix anything that needs fixing. It does keep him and his mind occupied, but surely the AI must have considered that at some point he'll figure out that all he's been going through all this time is some very pointless motions .....
       Finally, there's Beanfield, the "touchy-feely" Life Officer providing the crew -- but more importantly, the viewers back home -- a human touch and reference point. It's her messages back to earth -- carefully edited before being made public -- that give the world a glimpse of the Providence-mission and life aboard this spaceship, so far, far away.
       The ship eventually comes to the VZ -- "Violet Zone, an area devoid of beacons and relays". Out here, they're really cut off from any contact with earth. So they really have to rely on the AI. But, hey, it's gotten them this far -- with a great deal of salamander-killing success along the way -- and even if some of its decisions start to look a bit iffy, well ...:
     "Don't question the ship," Gilly said. "It's smarter than you are."
       This is one of the big questions in Providence: just how much can the humans trust the AI ? After all, the crew selection suggests something is pretty wonky -- surely, this quartet is anything but ideal, even if all they have to do is live together in the same cramped space for four years; indeed, when Anders begins going even more off the rails, becoming destructive to self, others, and the ship, it sure looks like the AI made a really bad choice there. Or is, in fact, the make-up of the crew brilliantly inspired, looking -- as the AI surely does -- at the long game ? After all, there's no denying that, as Gilly notes: "before Providences, people used to die a lot [....] Now they don't", which is certainly a good measure of success. Still, reader and crew long wonder whether the AI truly understands (and is performing) its mission, or is starting to get and play with ideas of its own.
       The mission is clear -- even if some have their doubts about it --: obliterate the alien species. Completely. There's no effort to make contact or communicate. All the humans have been doing, since that first encounter, is hunting down every last trace of the salamanders. Of which there are quite a lot .....
       The humans -- and their AIs -- have gotten pretty good at this. They sniff out where the salamanders are and then take them out, by the thousands and tens of thousands. The carnage is incredible -- as is the calm, almost routine with which the Providence-crew goes about it. Not that they have any real input or role, beyond that of observers ..... Certainly, the mindlessness of mass-destruction -- a military goal that is set, and then never really debated or (re)considered as things move along -- is eerily unsettling, another point hammered home by Barry. (The recent failed American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind .....)
       Barry does make the salamanders intriguing antagonists. They are obviously dangerous -- creepily so, even. And while they come out on the short end of each slaughter, they aren't without a few tricks up their sleeves. And, interestingly, their tricks seem to be getting better all the time:
Almost everything they try is more effective than before. It's steady improvement. And that shouldn't be possible, because we leave no survivors
       Naturally, the story culminates in a confrontation that is anywhere but as clear-cut as the earlier, easier ones, with the humans forced into actual action, the ship's/AI-intelligence's role even more difficult to fathom -- and some more insight into the salamander-beings.
       Providence is a space-travel and space-war story that (lightly) touches upon some big issues, neatly mixing them into the story, though without forcing the issues too much: the very dark cloud that is the military-industrial-technological complex and the whitewashing of truths for general consumption do hover over much of the story, but remain background, while the salamanders and the battle against them is at the action-packed fore. Still, this does give a bit more weight to the story, making for an accompanying slight queasiness about human action, trampling also into the universe at large. Providence is meant to be lighter fare, but also offers at least a bit of solid food for thought.
       For the most part, Providence is breezily entertaining space-action-fiction, with a well-chosen, largely inscrutable enemy and quite a bit of entertaining living-in-space details. The make-up of the crew is a bit befuddling -- these are not four people any rational (human) decision-maker would blast into space together on a four-year mission -- and even a bit annoying, especially when Anders begins going off the rails, but Barry works with it reasonably well -- and, of course, the fact that they are different and problematic characters helps make them and their interaction, in some ways, more interesting. Ideally, space travel and this sort of mission should be, from the human perspective, as boring as possible, but of course in fiction that generally doesn't play out nearly as well (so also Barry leaps ahead at one point in the story by a whole two years that's hardly worth a mention).
       It all makes for solid enough pass-time reading, with some genuine excitement and some fascinating big issues lightly touched upon.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 April 2020

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Providence: Reviews: Max(x) Barry: Other books by Max/Maxx Barry under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Max Barry lives in Australia. A marketing professional, he has taught at Monash and Curtin universities in Australia.

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