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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 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.


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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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Providence is the name of a new class of warship that is run by an AI. There are only 4 people aboard the Providence 5 and they are stuck together on the ship for four years. They have very different personalities but were chosen to live on the ship together for 4 years as the ship hunts and kills the enemy. The ship needs no input from the people in order to do this. The people are there to sell the war effort to the masses.

Their mission is to find the enemy and kill them. The enemy is a race known as the Salamanders. While on a peaceful space mission, the humans were attacked and slaughtered by the Salamanders. Now they are fighting back!

If you like space opera, you will like this book. Of course this is a series so nothing really gets resolved but it's a great set up for the next book. If more had been resolved (or anything had been) i'd have given this 4 stars, easy.

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I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is one of those books that you can really connect with. I felt so attached to the characters because of how well they were written. It had great pacing and world building. I did really enjoy this book. It was a great read.

Thank you kindly to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this review copy.

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Rating: 9.0/10

Thanks to the publisher and author for an advance copy of Providence for review consideration. This did not influence my thoughts or opinions on the novel.

Providence is a rip-roaring and discomfiting sci-fi thriller that is a bit Ridley Scott, a dash Avenue 5, and a whole lot Barry’s unending imagination. This was my first Max Barry novel and will certainly not be my last.

Like I stated before, this was my first read by Max Barry so I really had no clue what I was looking forward to going in. I’d seen some glowing reviews for some of his novels, especially Lexicon, so I figured I’d move this one up a bit on the pile and see what the fuss was about. Plus, I was given the opportunity to host Max on my podcast so I needed to have at least read a portion of something he’d written. Upon checking the synopsis, I felt this one was right up my alley:

Giant militarized spaceship > check.
Crew that mimics Netflix’s The Circle > check
Alien race that needs obliterating > check

Can you imagine being on board the “ultimate killing machine” and watching it completely obliterate alien lifeforms, all the while you are chilling in the cockpit, eating bon-bons and “doin’ it for the ‘Gram”. That is basically where we find this rag-tag crew, you know, until the fit hits the shan and the Providence enters the VZ. All bets are off and our social media influencers have to soon realize that the are on their own… or are they?

While the Providence isn’t exactly a sentient ship, just one with insane computer intelligence and weaponry, the crew begins to believe the ship is watching them, influencing their decisions, and maybe even, perhaps, putting their lives at stake as the days go on. On top of that, true behaviors and characteristics of the crew, you know, the ones who are practically imprisoned on the ship, begin to reveal themselves in not so subtle ways which makes for and very intriguing story. And then you have the salamanders, which I won’t go into on account of spoilery things.

What I can say is that I really enjoyed Providence. It has great pacing, an engaging storyline, very believable characters that you can emotionally connect with, and fantastic writing. Pretty much all you need to enjoy a novel. Highly recommend checking it out!

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When a peaceful space mission is destroyed by aliens that come to be called salamanders (though their description makes them sound more like bears encased in resin), Earth decides to go back there and wipe them out. Well, not so much “Earth,” but the military-industrial complex. They’ve constructed the Providence class of ships, massively armed with both weaponry and AI, developed in a joint venture between the military, called Service, and a corporation called Surplex.

The AI chooses where the ships will go to do battle with salamanders and it does all the fighting. So what do they need a crew for? Basically, the human crew are the cast of the ultimate reality TV series, and they’re there to sell this insanely expensive (and possibly unnecessary) war to the public.

Our crew of four is made for the TV market. Jackson, the battle-scarred captain who survived the first war and is now back to avenge her dead colleagues; Gilly, the tech guy; Anders, the wildly handsome and edgy weapons expert; and pretty young Beanfield, in charge of “Life,” meaning taking care of the crew’s well-being—and sending perky video clips back to her many fans on earth.

The first half of the book we get to know the four, and they’re so realistically drawn, and so very different from each other, that you wonder what lunatic AI picked these four to be stuck in a tin can in outer space together for four years. Little things go wrong, and then they just accelerate until you realize you’re gripping the book way too hard and you’re having to remind yourself to blink.

The reality-show stars get their chance to be real soldiers, and it’s scary and affecting as you experience the difference between reality show and reality.

This is my third Max Barry novel and the guy is incredibly inventive. He also somehow manages to mix real feeling with a lot of smartarsery. It’s a great blend. And you know, I’ve only scratched the surface of what this book is about. It’s thought provoking; the kind of book you want to ruminate about for awhile before reading anything else.

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Real talk: Being stuck in space would be terrifying. And I feel like a lot of books don't talk about how mind-numbingly boring it could get being stuck with the same handful of people for what has to seem like eons. But you know the old addage, be careful what you ask for. Because sometimes being bored is far preferable to the alternative, which is an alien species, whose literal life goal is to kill you, breathing down your neck.

As if life in space with only three other people wasn't rough enough, soon the crew ends up in a zone where they're unable to send or receive communication from the rest of the universe. Yikes. I mean, we have now been stuck with the same few folks for weeks now, can you imagine if we couldn't reach out to others? The author did a great job of making that seem realistic, though at times, it was a little bit of a slog, since the characters' lives were, at certain points, actual slogs.

There is a point where things pick up a bit, but I can straight up tell you nothing about it whatsoever, which stinks, because it is my favorite part of the book. But I will say, if you're thinking "hmm this is a bit slow" as you explore the characters' personalities and situations, know that things absolutely will pick up. This does make for some uneven pacing- going between the mundanity of space life to something far less calm, but I think worth it in the end. The characters were interesting, and I found much of the book to be quite thought-provoking.

Bottom Line: A slower start leads to a wild ride and a lot of character development in a very thought-provoking setting.

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I just finished Providence by Max Barry, kindly given to me by NetGalley in exchange for a honest review, and I really enjoyed the book. The writing is smooth, the characters are carefully, slowly and artfully revealed, and the plot kept me turning the virtual pages.
The true story is disguised within a typical humans-must-kill-all-the-hostile-creepy—aliens-to-survive plot. This book has much more to say beyond the (enjoyable) adventure piece. There is irony and truth about war and the stories we tell ourselves. Any other details would be spoilers. I highly recommend this book for a fun read as well as an interesting, if cynical, take on how humans perceive themselves and others and the narratives they develop.
Here’s a quote I liked:
You know that a lot of what you’re told isn’t the plain truth- and not lies, either, but rather satisfying stories wrapped around cold facts. Everyone understands that you only get to see the best side of these things... But so what? People don’t care about cold facts. You don’t want a universe of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.
4.5 stars

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Providence makes perfect use of a small cast of characters who have very little in common apart from the fact that they're stuck together in the same place for long stretches of time. And all of them think the other three are less important than they are - in the grand scheme of things. But I guess you have to be a bit of a narcissist to sign on to four years inside a giant, alien-destroying supercomputer.

The way the characters interacted kind of reminds me of Annihilation - in that there's just such a disconnect between each character's understanding of what's going on. But Gilly and Beanfield make the perfect travel narrators, one talking mostly about the ship and the "science" and the other talking about the people and all the things that no one else knows. For the first half of the book, Jackson was an enigma and I hated Anders (but I think both of those are very relevant because that's how Gilly and Banfield feel about them). But when the dynamic shifts and suddenly it's Anders and Jackson leading the narrative (but mostly Anders - Jackson filled in some backstory in a bit of a jarring infodump chapter and then got one chapter of actual action) and I found myself appreciating them more.

Throughout the book, I was waiting for the "gotcha" - the Ender's Game twist (this really made me think of Ender's Game but with adults, at least at the beginning, but I hated that book and absolutely did NOT hate this one, so). I kept thinking "oh maybe this will be the explanation" but then the suspense would keep dragging out. And suddenly, we were at 95% and the answer came, and I could really feel what the characters were feeling in that moment.

The book loops back brilliantly to the narrative of performance - and the ending just felt so fitting, even if the characters don't necessarily get the conclusion I would think they deserved. This was almost better because it felt more... Real?

There were some weird parts in the third act, parts where one of the characters didn't feel "in-character" anymore. Parts where, to draw attention to the long passage of time, there's not a whole lot going on that isn't relegated to the inside of the narrator's head. But there's still that undercurrent of suspense: does the AI really have their best interests at its core? and can they win a war against an alien enemy that's always learning and seems to have infinite numbers? and why is this war really happening?

What's cool is that we get answers to all of these things - even if they're not necessarily the answers the characters might have wanted.

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This wasn't the book for me. I read the first 30 or so pages and knew pretty much immediately I wasn't going to be into it. And I wasn't.

2/5 stars only because I didn't find the book offensive. I just didn't care.

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Brilliant. Action, suspense, unexpected twists, and a satisfying conclusion. Can't wait for the inevitable blockbuster movie.

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Humanity is at war against the pitiless, numberless salamanders. When conventional tactics fail, Earth turns to massive destroyers run by AIs. In order to keep the rest of mankind engaged, each ship is staffed by four humans. Their official jobs are rendered moot by the AI, but the videos they send home are social media gold. Gilly, Anders, Jackson, and Talia are such an ill-sorted crew they face more danger from each other than the salamanders. Then the AI and the salamanders start behaving . . . unexpectedly. A couple of good swerves and solid characters keep this from descending into paint-by-numbers space opera.

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Providence by Max Berry follows four chosen crew members on the ground breaking Providence ships first launch as they go to space to take the fight to the “salamanders” an alien race humanity had first contact with that went horribly wrong seven years prior to the start of this story. Mostly your chapters are with Gilly, your intelligence and only non military member of the crew, and Talia, your life expert whose job is to make sure they pull through this mostly sane and in one piece. There is also Jackson, the captain who was the only survivor of a disastrous encounter with the “salamanders” awhile back, and Anders, the weapons specialist.
The job of the crew isn’t to fight the war though, it’s to present a human face to the war as the specialized ship, with a built in AI that is smarter than everybody, handles all the fighting, traveling, etc.
When the ship enters a zone far from communications and with no way to call for help or share information things start to go horribly, horribly wrong.
The story was fairly slow moving the first half of the book, interesting but slow. It was interesting to see how they started at the beginning and how two years into traveling the little differences in their attitudes. When things really start moving though, they go and they go hard and fast. Wow.
The story had some interesting things to say. Most of it was war propaganda, and social media and how you can sell whatever you want with the right spin on it. It was interesting.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher I was able to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Opening with a tense second-person prologue describing a disastrous first contact encounter, Providence promises way more than Max Barry seems interested in delivering.

The story coasts for awhile on the harder SF details of its premise, but it becomes frustrating as Barry delves into the backstories of his four characters. The COMPLETE backstories. And after the crew is stranded on an alien planet, the novel becomes downright tedious. The back half of the book is a series of extended action scenes with an infinite number of aliens literally spewing out of holes on the ground. It felt like reading an anime.

Barry has always been a frustrating satirist. His twists here on big budget sci-fi tropes seem too knowing, preposterous, and too slight. (One of the first reveals will be familiar to anyone who read Hugh Howey's Silo series. And it begs the question, "If this, then WHY?") It's your basic "Bureaucracy sure is full of flaws, huh?" clichés applied to science fiction, and none of it is sharp enough to be entertaining.

I should have known from the description that this was going to be one of those "sad people are sad in space" books, but the opening gave me hope. Unfortunately, aside from the prologue (and the admittedly satisfying conclusion to the climax), Providence is a frustrating misfire. I'm all for unlikable protagonists, but despite the lengthy info dumps we get on this ship's sad crew, they just never seemed real enough to be anything but annoying. I cared more about the ship itself than anything else in this book.

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