Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Elizabeth Bear's generation-ship saga continues with Sanction. I really disliked this book. Maybe because I loved the first book so much. I had high hopes for the excitement, and drama, and the sheer imagination inherent in the established setting/characters/history, and this book completely failed to deliver on every possible front.

Extreme spoilers below the break.

At the end of the previous book (Dust), three salient plot points happened:

  1. Every living human, animal, plant, bacterium, and bio-synthetic hybrid was uplifted with intelligent, adaptive, networked, nanoscale supermaterial. Everything alive became immortal.
  2. One single character died, by having her entire brain/personality/atoms comprising her body absorbed into a giant super-AI that runs the generation ship.
  3. The entire ship was, forcefully, dramatically, and riskily, accelerated to 30% the speed of light.
That's right, 30% the speed of light. Seems pretty traumatic, right? Right! So it makes sense that this book opens with an uplifted, immortal super-human emerging from a gel-cushioned acceleration tank, with all the bones in his body broken. It was traumatic. We get it!

But this is contradicted throughout the rest of the book. Apparently only immortal super-humans in cushioned acceleration pods suffered any ill-effects of acceleration. As the book progresses, they meet many people, and animals, and even delicate plant structures, that were not in acceleration pods, or even given any warning about suddenly accelerating to 30% the speed of light, and are doing just fine, thank you very much. This makes no sense...

... except that it does make sense, because everyone is now wearing Narrative Armor. This means that anyone remotely interesting to the plot is completely immune to danger and harm. So the book is full of a lot --- I mean a lot --- of descriptions of characters' feelings of guilt and angst. A lot. Just in case anyone forgot that one single character died at the end of the last book, everyone is constantly reminded of her (and how she's not really dead! just incorporated into the AI running the ship, who is constantly watching over them all and interacting with everyone!), and mentions again and again how they miss her and are grieving. In this book, grieving means mostly "tedious descriptions of what you are eating and what your body's superintelligent nano-bot infestation is doing to keep you alive". It sounds interesting but after the twentieth time we get a description of how the nanobots are, or are not, able to help control emotions of grief and sadness, it is tiresome.

And inconsistent. Sometimes the fact that everyone is uplifted means they're immune to, e.g., radiation, hard vacuum, oxygen deprivation, mortal wounds, sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, forgetfulness. If that were not enough, they are almost always wearing some kind of ceramic hyper-armour, which is protective against hard vacuum and any physical attack (except that from Unblades, a super-technology that was all annihilated in the climax of the last book, except of course one shard wasn't, of course). But sometimes this armor and immortality doesn't work, e.g.: against leeches, or cobra fangs, or electrical discharges. And the nanobots protect against infection, except when --- for narrative purposes --- characters need to be infected in order to have some tension and struggle.

As if that wasn't enough, the last book established that even the dead can be reincarnated. This leaves really no stakes at all for this book to play with. I never had a sense of tension, or drama, or narrative building to a climax. And my non-climax totally paid off! When everyone finally converges for the Ultimate Battle, they don't even really start, then they discover that the Mysterious Villain who has been Subverting Control of the Spaceship is actually on their side, so: hooray! Book over.

I had lots of other quibbles with the pacing, and style, and characters, and world-building, and basically every aspect of this book. Some of the sentences were wrong --- I mean, they were grammatically correct, but they conveyed exactly the opposite meaning of what was intended and required of the paragraph surrounding them. I'll spare you (and me) the exhaustive list. Here's what I think should have happened:
  • Everyone can be reincarnated, so there's no need to wake anyone up in their pods. 
  • Let the AI figure it all out, control the situation, fix the "gaping holes" (which cause "problems" but never anything consequential) in the ship, etc. If the AI had just waited, then the entire book of people running around and getting into/out of trouble would be avoided, and the AI could cut to the chase and just find out that the mysterious villain is no villain at all.
  • The end.

I recommend not reading this book. Read the first one --- it was great! --- and then let your imagination run wild. Decide for yourself what happens next. It'll be better. There's a third one in this trilogy, which maybe I'll read if I want to rage-quit something every ten pages or so, as I was doing for the last 20% of this book. But probably I'll find better ways to spend my time.

This post's theme word is perdure, "to continue to exist; to endure." Against all reason, every single character aboard this spaceship perdures the acceleration to 30% of light speed, as well as the continual loss of irretrievable heat and atmosphere.

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