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SciFi Review – Providence

Providence by Max Barry

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


The first encounter with aliens did not go well for humans. Without any attempt at communication, the aliens killed the crew of a spaceship. Subsequent encounters were much the same, and now humans are doing their best to wipe out the entire species of the aliens they call “salamanders”.   There are losses of course, and after a particularly awful loss the Earth’s population is getting weary of the expense and questioning the war.

A new class of spaceship has been developed called Providence. Controlled completely by AI, it’s a weapon of war designed for zero human casualties. it still has a small human crew for… well, for what? Apparently it’s to watch the ship in action and to send social media clips back to Earth.  Not all the crew – Captain Jackson, Life officer Beanfield, Weapons officer Anders, and Intel officer Gilly – realize they have no role in the conflict.  Beanfield knows it, but her job is to keep everyone on an even mental keel and she’s not telling.  But Anders, who has managed to qualify for the operation while having severe mental issues, is going to throw a wrench into the mission.

It all starts to come apart in a big way when the ship goes out of communication range with Earth. Gilly notices a problem with the ship’s computer core that the AI doesn’t recognize. But fixing it causes the ship to decide the humans are interfering with its mission. In the meantime, Gilly is also seeing that the salamanders are learning from each encounter, and each time getting a little better at tactics. When Anders goes completely off the rails, they are in desperate straits indeed.  I couldn’t believe that Barry was going to be able to write them out of the predicament he put them in, but it was an exciting ending. Except maybe for what Gilly found about the salamanders, I’m still not sure what difference that made.

PROVIDENCE is not just an SF action novel. There’s a lot of character development for the crew, all of whom have flaws. Even Anders becomes sympathetic towards the end. There’s definitely jabs at the military-industrial complex and the whole social media universe.  There are some thought-provoking questions here. Is Barry trying to tell us that nothing we do really matters in the long run? Or maybe it’s just a book…

You can read this as a pretty cool space opera, or you can read it carefully looking for themes and ideas. It likely isn’t a book for everyone, but it was definitely interesting.




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