Ancestral Night

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This book takes off running, offering little explanation and a lot of unfamiliar terms, but I know to expect that from science fiction and I vastly prefer it to pages of tedious infodumping. The world of Ancestral Night was introduced gradually and, for the most part, seamlessly. I often cringe when authors invent their own future slang because so few can pull it off effectively. Elizabeth Bear is one of the few; her future slang fits the tone of the book and clearly involved a lot of careful consideration. The names she comes up with for characters and species were appropriately strange without being unpronounceable.

I was ambivalent about the book’s protagonist, Haimey Dz. She had an extremely cliché personality for a female science fiction protagonist: She’s independent, she’s practical, she’s tough, she’s snarky, she’s got a rough past and emotional issues... she’s not anything I haven’t seen a million times before. Her first-person narration went off on tangents so frequently that it was difficult to follow what was happening at any given moment. I adjusted to her narration style after a few chapters, but I would have enjoyed myself a lot more if it had been more focused. I did appreciate the development Haimey goes through over the course of the plot; she becomes more relatable and less cliché.

I commend Bear on the diversity in her cast of characters. I don’t understand why anyone would even bother writing science fiction that wasn’t diverse; it’s just not believable. We start out the book with Haimey, a female human salvager and a black lesbian; her business partner, Connla, a pansexual male human salvager; and their “shipmind,” Singer, a male-identifying artificial intelligence. There are more exciting and diverse side characters introduced later in the story but I won’t give too much away. Bear’s dialogue left much to be desired, frequently spinning off topic and descending into philosophical, political, or scientific discourses that added little to the plot. Combined with Haimey’s narration, it made me want to scream “get on with it, already!” more times than I can count.

Despite these obstacles, something about Bear’s writing style made it so easy to keep reading. The plot was incredibly slow-paced, yet for the most part I wasn’t bored. Ancestral Night had so many characteristics that seemed specifically designed to appeal to me: space travel, friendship, mystery, lesbians, ancient aliens, utopian societies. It was worth the read, even if it didn’t end up becoming a favorite.
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Ancestral Night is a complex space opera that tackles many current political and philosophical topics of today.

I must admit it starts out slow and took quite a while for my interest in the characters plight to spark to life. Bear’s writing is a very descriptive. The concepts, world building and execution was mind blowing.

This is not a nail biting, non-stop action read but one that takes pondering, concentrations and reflecting on the character choices, circumstances and differences.

Overall, nothing like I thought it would be but easily reflects many of today’s situations, political hot spots and turmoil.

I received this ARC copy of Ancestral Night from Saga Press. This is my honest and voluntary review.

My Rating: 3.5 stars
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A solid space opera in which salvagers discover that an alien race, supposedly long-dead, isn't, and that the historiography of their universe has been covering up quite a bit of information. There are some invented terms and jargon for readers to work out and get, as well as some physics, and the characters didn't feel completely developed, but a lot of SFF fans will enjoy it.
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Ancestral Night is the first in a series, and it is simply fabulous. The novel follows the adventures of Haimey Dz (surname is a buzzing sound pronounced as Dzzz), a woman traveling on a salvage tug ship named Singer (also the shipmind's name, and a self-gendered as male) with her partner Connla, a crackerjack pilot. Connla harks from an atavistic world called Spartacus, where people aren't too fond of warm fuzzies and cuddles. In spite of his culture's imprint, Connla is a very attached (in a non-romantic way) to Haimey and to her calico cats, Mephistopheles and the practically narcoleptic Bushyasta. They're an excellent working crew and a family of sorts. As the story opens, Haimey, Connla, and Singer have happened upon an abandoned vessel. Assuming they might be able to salvage some tech, Haimey heads out to explore it. She and her crew are stunned to find the unusual ship has a dead Ativahika. An Ativahika is an alien "syster" who metabolizes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, just like humans do. They are huge, and look like giant seahorses, with bodies up to 10 km in length. But Haimey and Connla's find isn't at all what they expected when investigating a scar in the White Space. First of all, the ship that Ativahika is on is maybe Koregoi (ancient but sophisticated tech) and it has gravity inside, even though it doesn't spin. Second of all, the Ativahikas on it were murdered. Connla dubs the ship the Milk Chocolate Marauder. Haimey is alarmed by the fact that while exploring the ship and investigating crimes that occurred on it, she receives a puncture wound and is infected with what looks like a sentient galaxy-appearing slime mold. But is it even organic? Is it some sort of tech parasite? Whatever it is, it alters her senses and ability to communicate with the mysterious ship and... more. But hold on... pirates are looking for that ship, and maybe even Haimey herself. Especially the most alluring of villains, Zanya Farweather. What do they want with Haimey? What does she know that she doesn't know she knows? What did she forget and why was it forgotten? Amid great danger, she finds allies, including the coolest space bug you'd ever want to meet, Cheeirilaq Goodlaw, and her true self.

Ancestral Night is a fascinating exploration of memory and identity. Haimey, formerly part of a clade of rightminded* hive-thinkers, is a woman with memories that have been altered. Yet she isn't quite sure how her memories have been altered though she knows some of why they were. Over the course of the novel, she redefines her sense of self, and comes to terms with her guilt over the death of her lover, Niyara. While the novel is a space opera, it's also a novel about how our memories define who we are and in turn, who we can choose to be(come). I am looking forward to the next book, Machine, which is set in the same world. I hope we will see glimpses of Haimey and her cats, Connla, and Cheeirilaq in it.

*Scary stuff...

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Saga Press via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia.  A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done.  A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas;  Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave.

The best part for me was all the discussion about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was a too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action.  Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did.  I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 30% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 25% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action!  Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that :-)

Great for fans of The Martian.

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing?  Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally.  And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice.  Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff.  Slavery for everybody else.  Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”
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Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, a good read. Well written and engaging to read. The crew of a ship are looking for salvage and stumble across an oddity before everything breaks loose on them.
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There are so many reviews for this already, I'll just say that this is another strong novel by an experienced, talented, and prolific author. Recommended for sci-fi fans.

I really appreciate the NetGalley copy for review!!
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Got this for free in exchange for a review, so thanks to the people at Saga Press.

So this was *excellent*.

Science fiction has always been, at its heart, about the proverbial Big Questions. Who we are, where we're going, what it means to be human. *Ancestral Night* is an excellent work in that tradition.

Haimey Dz makes her living salvaging derelict ships along with her partner/copilot, the shipboard AI, and two cats. They're citizens of what is basically the Federation. Part of what makes this super interesting is that all people (human or otherwise) in this totally-not-the-Federation have a computer in their head (or other anatomical equivalent) that not only enables easy trans-species communication, it also lets people regulate their brain chemistry to a very precise degree. Feeling angry? That's not productive, I think I'll switch that off. Need to do something daring and dangerous? Switching off fear of consequences might help with that. Bad breakup? I think I'll just switch off my hormones and be asexual for a while.

It's an interesting concept to start a book around, made even more so when she gets tangled up with an anarchist pirate. The debates between them over free will are super interesting, and possibly my second-favorite part of the book. And those are made even MORE interesting given the fact that Haimey finds the pirate's beliefs abhorrent, but can't stop noticing the fact that she is extremely attractive. (I didn't pull the "bad breakup" example above out of nowhere.)

Plotwise, the bulk of the book is centered on Haimey and her pals finding an ancient derelict of a super advanced extinct precursor civilization, and the struggle between Haimey the above mentioned pirate trying to keep hold of it. Throw in a bunch of other really cool science fiction concepts, up to and including the ability to sense and manipulate gravity and sentient Dyson spheres, plus some excellent writing and a few emotional sucker punches, and I am a very happy reader.

Oh, and did I mention the cats? ZERO-G Cats? It's as awesome and adorable as one can imagine. My favorite is when the cats are introduced to an environment with gravity - which they are NOT happy about - they quickly figure out that sleeping humans are both squishy and warm.

I want more zero g cats in my life. So I suppose I'll just have to read the sequel.
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