Cover Image: Providence


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Max Barry shows us a world where we’ve become mere props for war propaganda, while the real decisions come from AI vastly more intelligent than our own species. Providence follows the crew an AI Providence warship on its journey to battle an alien species called salamanders. An interesting take on the genre and an exciting read straight through to the end.
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This was incredibly entertaining, and I wish it were a series (but it can't be). Super-enjoyable space shenanigans.
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The human crew of an AI warship are maybe there to sustain human support for the interstellar war. But being isolated from the rest of humanity brings out some weirdness, not to mention fighting an enemy that seemingly can make brilliant leaps and is also incapable of what we consider ordinary logic. I like Barry’s work, and this one is a fascinating blend of unreliable narration, the effects of monitoring (via social media and otherwise) on the construction of the self, and speculation about the different kinds of intelligences that could exist, some of which we may build ourselves.
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Providence is very entertaining and the plot is interesting. It has a good pace and a graphic feel. It has all the science fiction elements, artificial intelligence, spacecraft, aliens, etc. It is well written and has well developed characters. It’s a good science fiction novel. I would like to thank Netgalley, the publisher and the author for providing me with an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion of this book.
#Providence #NetGalley
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Four crew members go into deepest space in an AI-driven, armed-to-the-hilt Providence class starship, fighting an interstellar war against an insectoid race called Salamanders. With the ship able to handle all navigational and combat tasks on its own, the crew come to realize that their presence only serves to add a public relations face to the mission.

So where does Max Barry take Providence from there? The set-up is familiar enough for readers to wonder: Is this Starship Troopers, blasting away back and forth with intelligent insect-like species? Does a salamader go nuts inside the ship like in Alien? Maybe like 2001 where the computer-driven ship becomes a malevolent force? A Kobayashi Maru training simulation or a Borg hive-mind like in Star Trek? The precedents can go on and on, or Barry can go in a new direction.

I won't give it away. It doesn't really matter, which is the sole reason I give Providence four stars (3.5 really) rather than five. Where Barry takes the conflict proves to be rather inconsequential, far less important than a) the character-driven set-up in the first act, and b) the action sequences in the third act. Beyond that, there is a philosophical case being argued about the willingness to go to war and kill on a mass scale -- especially when the ultimate combat is between code sequences.

Given that all good science fiction is a reflection of current issues, I couldn't help but see Providence as an allegory for waging technological warfare via drones, smart missiles and the like against dehumanized combatants, possibly based on lies for the benefit of corporations profiting from war -- sound familiar? Having read Providence ahead of its official publication date (thanks to Goodreads for an advance reading copy), there are no interviews with Barry I can refer to for confirmation, but it sure seems like a close parallel.

So lots of good stuff here -- decent character development for a character-driven story of an isolated crew; interesting musings about automation, social media manipulation, the human face of technology; and topical themes about modern warfare. Where it breaks down is in the actual story line over the latter part of the book -- more precisely, the feeling that the story matters less than the action that results . Another way of stating this: the McGuffin proves to be of less interest to readers than to the characters (and maybe not that interesting to the characters either).

I've read almost of all of Barry's other work and I've always liked his take on technology, governmental and corporate institutions, and how the individual interfaces with the collective. There have almost always been sci-fi elements in his stories but until now they were always set in a world a lot like our own in the present, an alternate present, or near future. This is pure space opera sci-fi but still incorporating many of the same themes he has tackled in the past. He's always, to my taste, done better with the set-up than with the closing, and that is the case here too. Still good stuff, and will be more appreciated by those who like action-packed endings.
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It took a little while to get into this, but it's quite imaginative and has a number of interesting plot points. It has a good pace and a cinematic feel. Good not great. 3.5 stars

I really appreciate the copy for review!
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Wasn't able to read the advance copy of this book due to formatting issues. Strange line breaks and paragraph breaks in the middle of sentences. Spacing and hyphenation in the middle of words that were not at the end of a line.
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A while back I randomly thought about Max Barry, checked out his website and was delighted to learn that he had a new book due out in 2020. I was even more delighted to find this book months in advance on Netgalley. Because I’m a fan, I absolutely adore Barry’s books, I’ve read all he’s written and he isn’t exactly prolific, so this was something of an event. It’s also why this was something of a disappointment. Since I downloaded Providence based on Barry’s name alone without doing any preliminary research, I pretty much expected…well, more of the same on par with his other work. Clever, socially relevant satires taking on corporate world, science advancements or both. But Providence is a different beast altogether. In fact, it’s pretty much a straight up science fiction novel. Almost a military sci fi, actually, which is some of my least favorite science fiction. The title refers to the type of spaceship, spacewarship, that is utilized by Earthlings to fight the aliens. That’s right, an intelligent lifeforms are finally detected out there in the boundless mysterious universe and people just can’t wait to eliminate them all.  To that end, teams are sent out into space in ships powered and controlled by AI, teams that are largely unnecessary and mainly serve as a PR promotion to put a friendly face on the war effort.  Obviously, this isn’t very empowering for the team members, certainly not enough to sustain them for a four year mission, not really worth dying for. Makes the battle for survival, that follows a major technical snafu, all the more challenging. But also, does provide an opportunity for some last minute altruism and heroic displays. So you have all the classic science fiction elements, aliens, spaceships, AI. Not quite Star Wars, but, you know, wars in the stars. And it’s all reasonably entertaining and well written. The characters are pretty well developed, which is important for an essentially character driven story. The pacing is dynamic, the book reads very quickly. But…but…there’s nothing really special about it. And there’s nothing really Max Barry about it. Anyone might have written this. It isn’t especially memorable in any way, not like other Barry plots one can fondly recollect years after reading them. It’s just…there. That’s where the disappointment comes in. And sure, science fiction is popular and probably an easier sell than a satire and Barry has obviously had this story in him for a long time, going by the afterword and sure, technically it’s nice when the author tries new genres, showcasing range and versatility, but for a reader, nay, for a fan, Providence leaves a lot to be desired. Why leave a niche one excels at to be average at something other, however popular that something other might be. Some authors can do that. Blake Crouch went from thrillers to writing some really great sci fi. This, though, wasn’t quite like that. Still perfectly readable and plenty entertaining, imaginative and featuring  great aliens effects,  but just not quite as good as it by all rights should have been. Basically a case of mismanaged expectations. A personal thing. User mileage may vary. It’s still a fun ride, either way. Thanks Netgalley.
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