Cover Image: Providence

Providence

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Member Reviews

Not Your Usual Barry

The first chapter of this book, in which we watch a narrated video of first contact with an alien race, is gripping, disturbing, and almost impossibly suspenseful. 

Then we join four not very special or interesting astronauts on a fascinating for a while automated, AI controlled, space battleship. There are lots of predictable deep thoughts, punctuated by traditional space opera action, but talky crewmen in space didn't strike me as the best or most engaging  way to get across Barry's ideas.

(Please note that I received a free ecopy of this book without a review requirement, or any influence regarding review content should I choose to post a review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)
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Thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

This is an interesting take on AI and future warfare and the PR use of humans in this warfare.  Early on in the book, the four characters on the ship seem pretty stereotyped - the veteran captain, with perhaps a touch of PTSD, the good looking weapons guy, the cute but maybe a little ditsy woman in charge of "Life" on the ship, and the techie geek.  One of the best parts of the book is that as the plot unfolds, there are enough twists and developments to pull us out of the stereotypes.

There are a number of issues touched on in this book.  How do (should) we relate to aliens?  How do (should) humans and AI intersect?  And perhaps most important, when should we be jumping into wars, and who's driving the decision making on this question.  

I won't discuss the latter part of the book here, since there are twists that I don't want to ruin.  Just to say that this is a thought provoking book, while still being a good read.
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Unfortunately I did not finish this book so I do not have any constructive criticism for either the writing or the author in general. I did not find the subject matter interesting at the time of reading. At some point in the future I may revist, but for now I have DNF'd this title. I appreciate the opportunity to have read and reviewed this book.
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I enjoyed reading several aspects of this book! The pacing was wonderful, characters were well drawn, and the reading experience on the whole was delightful.
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***Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you NetGalley and G.P Putnam’s Sons!!***

This is my second book by Max Barry and I officially just love him! The way he uses words is just extraordinary. His plots seem so simple on the surface but the nuance and depth that they uncover is astounding. I want to talk to him about how his mind works and how he has so many gorgeous ideas. I may have gotten a copy of this for free, but I now own a paid copy of everything of his I can get my hands on.

On the surface, this book is about a war in space with aliens. Four people have been selected to “pilot” an AI controlled warship that is being sent to the far reaches of space to kill the enemy “salamanders”. No one is clear why the salamanders started killing everyone, they just attacked and so humans attacked back. During an engagement the ship makes the crew nervous and they start to wonder if maybe it is fallible after all or perhaps it might turn on them at some point.

The more I read, the more I realized that ultimately that is not what this story is about. This story is about the psychology of warfare. It doesn’t matter who the enemy is. It doesn’t matter why there’s a conflict. It doesn’t matter who is fighting on the front lines except if they can sell it to the public. So put on a smile and make some wartime diaries for the folks back home. And, in the end, it doesn’t even matter that you won it’s all just part of the game of warfare.

I didn’t feel an emotional connection to any of the characters, they seem incidental to the plot and frankly I think that was intentional. They didn’t matter. They were just a vehicle to the story. That was the point. But the ending got me. It made me tear up a bit. Because I finally got the point. It was a beautifully written book. I absolutely loved it.
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This was a decent book but I just do not think it was for me. I did like the story however I was a bit confused most of the time. It was interesting enough to keep me reading, and all in all I think anyone who likes science fiction should give it a go!
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I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for allowing me to review this book. The premise of this book really got me intrigued, but throughout this story, I did not understand what is going on and I still dont know what is going on. Overall, I just could not get into this book.
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Max Barry follows up his masterful novel Lexicon with Providence, a thrusters ahead on one-quarter impulse sci-fi read that should have warp 9.

Providence has Barry successfully channeling Robert A. Heinlein with his world-building and embedding Starship Troopers – the novel, not the movie – at its core. The alien antagonists are bug-like creatures called “salamanders” that are not driven by conquest or dominance, rather, are following their DNA code to eat and reproduce.

The story focuses on four astronauts – Talia, Gilly, Jolene, and Anders – and documents their two years in space traveling through the vastly-unchartered Violet Zone. Their mission is to stop as many salamanders as possible. And they are good at their task. Rather, their AI-controlled ship Providence controls everything with stellar performance reviews all around. The reader becomes a passenger to the crew’s strange personalities and their coping mechanisms as each chapter alters the focus and viewpoints. After all, when stuck in space with the ever-present possibility of being salamander chow, coping mechanisms are all ya got.

Providence shares universal themes yet definitely retains a close alignment with those in Starship Troopers – survival, the dominant programming of DNA, the fallibility of technology. However, Barry avoids the political statements Heinlein aggressively used. In doing so, also removes that deeper level swinging the Providence pendulum closer to the Verhoeven movie yet avoids the gratuitous cheese. Barry’s foursome are complex, driven, characters. They are conflicted and contemplative yet all share the same level of civic virtue and duty. Again, similar to Heinlein’s Johnny Rico.

Lexicon was a truly original piece focusing on a secretive group that can use a hidden language to manipulate people. Barry manipulates the reader as well, playing with time, shifting the goals of key characters while providing intelligent, imaginative sci-fi. Providence is both straight and shallow.

If Lexicon was akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien – new, breathtaking, fearless – Providence is Cameron’s Aliens – a fun, wild ride but at its simplest, an action flick. Providence is standard sci-fi fare.

Providence succeeds in questioning the future of warfare, be it against alien salamanders in the deepest reaches of space or different tribe here on Earth. The need for the appearance of war is both unique and mandatory. Barry reflects on those needs and delicately adds how social media plays into the war machine. After all, if AI is calling, and making, and aiming, the shots what role do human casualties play? An idea that Heinlein would counter. If only Providence took those notions interstellar.


Thanks to Max Barry, NetGalley, and G.P. Putnam’s Sons for the far-flung read.
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This is the space sci-fi I've been waiting for.

The plot is the perfect balance of character and action, but unlike a Spielberg-esque space opera, it goes where most mainstream entertainment refuses to go. There are so many interesting themes (what it means to be human; what it means to be human alongside the "other"; the benefit of AI vs human intelligence; if one species really can and should be superior to another; etc.), and they're all handled with blunt awesomeness.

If you love space travel and alien stories, or just want a book that will get you thinking, I highly recommend this.
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I just couldn't connect with any of the characters in this one.  I see what the author was going for, a different spin on the Alien-like story.  It started off strong and really fizzled for me less than halfway through.  I skimmed the rest of it and got the idea, but still didn't care about any of the characters.
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Thank you for the chance to review this galley prior to publication. Please refer to my goodreads profile for a full review.
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Max Barry has been my favorite author for years. All of his books are entertaining and make you think. This one is no different. His books are like no other. He writes with such quick wit and satire which is completely contradictory to the generally sci-fi and whimsically intriguing topics.

In this novel, Barry takes on aliens and space among a rag tag group of military astronauts dealing with an insanely intelligent ship. Even though it completely sounds like a weird situation he would write about, this book completely stands out from the others. 

The writing leaves a lot unsaid. In his other novels it works wonderfully. Here however it kind of just left me wanting more. The characters’ motives weren’t as clear and it made for a lot of guess work. For a “war” novel set in space with a lot of killing, it actually managed to be light on action. At least until the last 100 pages or so. Definitely isn’t a bad thing, especially for someone like me who isn’t crazy on action movies/books. But it did bring a unique perspective on war. 

Overall, is this my favorite book Max Barry has ever written? No. However, I do think it is still wonderful. His writing has formed so much over the years and I still can’t wait for his books to come out. He has a brilliant mind and way of telling stories and that alone is enough of a reason to pick up his books.

And yes, even though this wasn’t my favorite of his books, he is still my favorite author. I honestly don’t think anyone can even compare to what this man comes up with. Well done, Max. Keep it up.
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In Book + Film Globe.
https://bookandfilmglobe.com/fiction/book-review-providence/

The Machines Will Save Us
In Max Barry’s ‘Providence,’ humanity is mostly useless against an intergalactic threat

 April 27, 2020 Christopher Farnsworth
Max Barry’s work, even when it wanders the far reaches of possibility, always has a destination in mind, in the same way that gravity draws everything back down. And this usually means that someone is going to crash into the hard facts of failure, or betrayal, or death. This is what makes Barry’s latest novel Providence so ominous, even when it seems nothing is going wrong.

After his debut in 1999 with Syrup, it seemed like Maxx Barry was on his way to becoming his own brand name as a regular delivery system of smart corporate satires. He followed his first novel up with Jennifer Government and Company, both about malevolent businesses using their employees as unwilling pawns. He’s since dropped the double-X from his name. As he said, he was trying to make a point about marketing, but people assumed he was just a pretentious asshole.

Then Barry expanded his horizons, writing sci-fi novels like Machine Man and Lexicon, which he tinged with real emotion. While not as cold as his first books, they share the same sense of inevitablity.

Providence 

Providence is a space opera that Barry’s set in a time when humanity has made first contact with alien life, and it’s killing us. The salamanders, as we call them, are instantly hostile and incredibly lethal. They’re capable of living in the vacuum of space. They learn from every encounter and can spit exotic matter that rips through flesh and spaceships like soft tofu. This forces humankind to up its game considerably. Earth responds by building giant, artificially intelligent warships called Providences, which require a crew of only four people.

Actually, “require” is not really the right word. The ship makes all the tactical decisions, repairs itself, steers itself, and contains enough firepower to destroy the salamanders from great distance.

The problem is that this isn’t interesting or sexy enough for the taxpayers back home who have to foot the bill for these massive, and massively expensive, warcraft. There are no dogfights, no compelling narratives, no heroes for which to root. It’s like sending a very dangerous Roomba out to deal with an intergalactic pest problem.

This is why the powers that be select the crew of the Providence. They’re four people with interesting personality deficits who are nominally responsible for command, weapons, science, and life functions on the ship, but are really onboard to win public support through social media. They’re meant to be characters that the folks back home can root for, to be the human face of a war that would be better fought without humans.

This is why, in a point that Barry delivers stealthily and steadily, none of them should actually be onboard Providence. Gilly, the ostensible science officer, can never be as smart or resourceful as the ship’s AI, so he does busywork to keep him from melting down. Jackson, the command officer, lost her entire crew during her first encounter with the salamanders, but rather than provide motivation for revenge, she finds herself crippled by PTSD. Anders, the weapons officer, is a selfish, charismatic, play-by-his-own-rules rebel, which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a huge liability in deep space. And the life officer, Talia, is an open wound of need and insecurity, which is great motivation for constant updates about her state of being, but not terribly helpful for actually dealing with the other crew’s crippling psychological problems.

These would all be perfect backstories for characters in a space drama, but they’re not necessary–and in some cases, they’re actively harmful–to the real mission of the ship, which is to win a war.

Of course, the crew can’t help but make themselves the center of the drama, and this turns out to be pivotal to the actual battle against the ever-evolving salamanders.

And at that point, the last third of the book becomes a full-on space adventure that tests the crew to its limits. They overcome their mistrust, and end up behaving very much like the heroes they were meant to be. Plus, there are laser guns and explosions and splattered alien guts everywhere.

But hidden behind the mayhem are the deeper questions of free will, and how much agency any human being is going to have in an age of machines that think faster than we do. In all his books, Barry examines how our creations–corporations, language, machines, and software–rebuild us after we’ve built them.

The plots, both the AI’s hidden agenda and Barry’s, come together in the final battle, which is as satisfying as any number of runs against the Empire’s latest version of Death Star. It all works the way it is supposed to, even in the places where it goes wrong. This is a bad sign for free will, since everyone behaves exactly within the AI’s expected tolerances. Even light-years into the far reaches of the galaxy, people cannot escape who they are.

On the other hand, if you’ve been missing a sense there’s someone intelligent in charge against an encroaching threat to humanity, Providence, at least, provides a happy ending.

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 31, 2020)
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This was a really great sci-fi read. I enjoyed the way it employed and built on some modern sci fi tropes. The characters were well thought out.
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Faced with a losing war against a spacefaring race of huge and hostile bug-like creatures (nicknamed "salamanders"), the countries of the world unite (with much grumbling, as this shit's expensive!) to build a fleet of AI-powered Providence-class battleships, crewed by the best and the brightest. The latest Providence battleship---which is never named, unless I missed it, which seems relevant--- are Gilly, the socially awkward tech genius; Anders, a handsomely psycho weapons officer; Beanfield, the Life Officer---think ship's counselor---and Jackson, the captain, a survivor of a devastating salamander attack.

But isn't that a pretty small crew for a massive battleship, you ask? To which I reply: yes, you're right! That is absolutely a question you should be asking!

Halfway through Providence, I was convinced I'd figured out the twist: the aliens would turn out not to be real, you see, and the entire ordeal would be revealed as some hideous corporate experiment. Or the aliens were real, but the salamanders were just the equivalent of artificially-created drones, and Our Heroes' mission would turn out to be to encounter the real aliens, the intelligent masters behind the curtain.

I won't say if I was correct; best to read this for yourself. But I will say this: this book is either incredibly nihilistic or exactly the opposite, and I still find myself still chewing over which it was.

I received a free copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Providence, by author Max Barry, tells the story of Providence Five, a spaceship sent on a four-year mission to destroy aliens called salamanders that have been killing humans. There are four crew members aboard: Beanfield and Jackson, both women, and two men, Anders and Gilly. As the story unfolds, each person reveals their strengths and hidden weakness as they struggle to survive. The ship itself, Providence, almost becomes a character, too, as it's governed by artificial intelligence. A battle scene on the ship is really thrilling and feels written for the big screen; I wouldn't be surprised if this book becomes a feature film. 

I did find a scene between one crew member and a salamander, in which they begin to communicate, a little off-putting. Given all the death and destruction we'd seen the salamanders cause, hearing the crewman call the creature "Martin" took me out of the story for a while. But maybe that's what happens; prisoners begin to identify with their captors. This happened too fast for me, however, and made me wonder why no one had communicated with the aliens before if it was so easy to do.

I'd recommend this book for any sci-fi fan. It's an exciting read that pulls you through to the very end.
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Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on March 31, 2020

Mashing together themes are that are common in science fiction, Max Barry crafts a fun and interesting story in Providence. The themes include the danger of allowing Artificial Intelligence to supplant humans in making important decisions, the risk of corporate officers becoming indistinguishable from military officers, and the likelihood that the military industrial complex will manipulate public opinion so it can fight a profitable war.

The war is being waged with aliens who look like (and are therefore referred to as) salamanders. Salamanders have the ability to expel a force from their mouths that blows a hole through just about anything. The first human explorers to encounter salamanders tried to communicate with them, but ended up with holes in their bodies and ship. Hence the war.

Humans decided to take it to the salamanders, devoting more than 20% of their GDP to the production of weapons and ships. After humans were defeated in battle, the company that manufactures the AI that runs the ships’ systems blamed the humans for not recognizing the threat quickly enough. The blame could just as easily have been placed on the AI, but that wouldn’t have been profitable.

The new Providence class of ships is controlled entirely by AI. Humans are along for the ride, primarily to make propaganda videos showing their success at destroying salamanders. Propaganda is also designed to convince the public that salamanders hate humans, when in fact humans have no clue about what motivates a salamander. Nor are humans likely to learn, since their goal is to eradicate salamanders as a species.

Four characters are on a ship that is the novel’s focus. Jolene Jackson was the lone survivor of the defeat that sparked the decision to put AIs in charge of the war. She reluctantly agreed to become the ship’s captain, although the job gives her little to do beyond trying to make the crew appear to have discipline. Isiah Gilligan (“Gilley”) is a civilian who works for the company that made the ship and its AI. Gilly is in charge of maintaining the ship’s systems, but since the ship maintains itself, he spends his time trying to solve puzzles, including the nature of the enemy. Gilly is driven by curiosity.

Paul Anders is a claustrophobic loner who doesn’t respond well to authority. He is in charge of weapons, but since the ship decides for itself which weapons it will fire, Anders spends most of his time throwing ninja stars at Gilley. Talia Beanfield is essentially a psychologist who is charged with promoting the crew’s mental welfare, but her primary function is to assure that the crew produces upbeat propaganda films that viewers will appreciate.

In the tradition of science fiction novels, characters confront their fears, make sacrifices, puzzle out solutions, and persevere. Unlike traditional science fiction, however, Providence avoids a predictable ending, the kind where a few brave humans outsmart and outfight vast numbers of aliens. Instead, Providence reminds us that any aliens we eventually encounter are likely to be truly alien, so different from us that we won’t be able to understand them. Well, except for the curious among us, who might eventually work out the truth by making intuitive leaps that would escape an AI. In this case, the truth is a perfect blend of awesome and awful.

Max Barry tells much of the story in a light tone, finding humor in human foibles. As the humans come to grips with their true role on the ship — giving Earth something to cheer about so they won’t gripe so much about the cost of a seemingly futile war — they begin to bond with each other. Like all good fiction, the story is more about relationships than destroying aliens. Some of the novel come across as filler, but for the most part, Barry creates action and suspense that keep the plot in motion, while generating genuine excitement near the novel’s end.

RECOMMENDED
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Max Barry's Providence is an interesting read. At points it feels almost disappointing, but not because it is poorly written. On the contrary, It's interesting because as Speculative Fiction, it raises a good number of questions, and provides a very real answer to those questions.

I went into the novel expecting a cinematic sci-fi story, this is not that novel. Honestly, given Mr. Barry's past work, that was my own fault. He delivered a story consistent with his style of writing.

Throughout the novel, I found myself wanting to feel emotional attachments to the characters; Gilly, Beanfield, Anders, and Jackson. I wanted to like them as fantasy heroes. However, That is simply not who they are. They are humans, with different pasts chosen to do a job for their military. They are less the traditional Sci-fi/fantasy hero and more of a realistic everyday hero. You like or dislike their personalities, but you don't get to love them.

As a reader, I became fascinated with the same interests as Gilly. What are these Salamanders? How do they Operate? Why is the human race at war with them? Barry's novel gives you very real answers without building extensive sci-fi lore. I felt very much the same way with Beanfield's motivations, What is the ship and it's AI? Who are these people she is in charge of keeping alive? The novel answers to those questions but, only gives you a small taste of fantasy.

I think the best way you sum up my feelings towards how the novel addresses its biggest questions, would be to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want... but you get what you need."

I enjoyed reading Providence, and I would definitely recommend it to others.  I'm not going to pretend it would every reach my Top 3 favorites. It is a well executable, believable novel, with human characters who are just dealing with/ or avoiding dealing with the situations they encounter. It is slow to start, but during its climax and you almost feel obligated to know.
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The author seemed to want to write a book about manufactured heroes or maybe about the dangers of artificial intelligence.  These aren’t bad ideas for a science fiction book, but they were not handled very well or with much depth in this book. Four people are sent on a 4 year mission aboard a spaceship controlled by AI. Their goal is to destroy every single alien (called salamanders) they encounter, despite the fact that the salamanders do not appear to be a current threat to Earth. The word “genocide” is brought up, but no one seems concerned about it. 

The first 3/4 of the book consisted of backstories of the 4 crew members (none of whom seemed even remotely intelligent or competent) and repetitive encounters with the salamanders. While the salamanders seemed to be learning from the encounters, they still always lost. I didn’t care about the characters and, since they didn’t seem to be serving a higher purpose, I started to root for the salamanders. At the end of the book, there were hordes of salamanders and, for the very first time, one of the humans actually tried to communicate with one. Amazingly he succeeded in a matter of hours. I don’t know what a linguist would make of this. Too little too late. The whole thing felt like a very cheesy TV show

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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I don't understand what the point of this story was. 
I was intrigued by the concept introduced in the book blurb, which seemed like it was exploring the relationship between humans and AI, and where superior intelligence may not have the capacity to factor in human need. 
But it wasn't really about that, it was about the optics of a war I didn't understand with a resolution that gave me no sense of anything- not closure, not interest.
This may just be a case of being the wrong reader of this book as fictional wars in general don't hold my interest as a viewer or reader.
I loved Lexicon and will keep reading Barry's titles.
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