Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Grail by Elizabeth Bear


I have spoken many times about my habit of starting series wherever books cross my field of vision. This is one where I think I would have benefited from starting at the beginning. I didn't, though, I started at book 2, and was pretty much utterly confused. That is my own damn fault. By this book, though, the third and final one in the trilogy, I think I pretty much had my feet underneath me, and could enjoy it more deeply than my confusion let me sink into the second. This novel is from the earlier part of Bear's career, when I liked her a lot, but found her writing sometimes a bit oblique, which could leave me confused as to what was going on. 

That's not a problem I see any more. And she's one of my favourite authors these days, so I am glad I kept reading. There was always enough there to keep me attentive, and this book is no exception.

The giant generation ship is nearing its destination, only to find that better technology that came about after their expulsion from Earth means that the planet they've been waiting for is already occupied. Not only that, it's occupied by humans quite different from what they remember, who have adopted "right-minding" in order to tame instinctual fears and hatreds, to allow humans to act from a more rational perspective.

The name itself gives me the shivers, but for the first while, the way it's described is somewhat seductive. It's an easier answer, a way to not take more than we need and suck others dry. The downsides are not so strong as to make you immediately step back. Except, you gradually see, who decides what's right? What are the parameters of acceptable? And what if people make a perfectly rational decision to attack those who are different because they threaten their way of life?

And a small question, but an essential one - what happens to art?

This is all the meta stuff, but it's played out through characters, through Perceval, the Captain, still grieving for her lost love and handed at the start a new, terrible death that will shake her, and make her aware of fractures on an already fractured ship, the kind that could tear it apart, instead of being able to live in uneasy truce.

What to do when these two cultures collide - those who eschew genetic manipulation except of the brain, and those who adapt as a matter of ethos. The core of the book is people honestly trying to find ways to make that work, on both sides, beset by other factions that see the only potential path as one of war, or self-destruction. 

What makes a human? What are the boundaries we set? How do we police them? Can we learn to relax and let down those boundaries, even with fear removed from the equation?  This is all set agains a desperate race against time to find who is behind various conspiracies who want to wreck the whole experiment before it can even be undertaken.

Some day, I really should go back and read the first book in the series and then come back to the later two with that knowledge under my belt. Still, having read the second, I was able to come into the third less lost than I thought I might be. It doesn't surprise me that I found it thought-provoking and engaging. 

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