Max Barry’s Providence

Often, a really good book manages to just straddle the line between genres. Providence by Max Barry represents such a book. While it contains elements of science fiction, and the trappings and narrative also quickly point to horror, the story doesn’t rely on those tropes: there is a strong focus on character, with a small number of figures getting a good deal of examination, and there is a very obvious war narrative throughout the story.

Indeed, the book starts with a second person point of view, as the reader is given the experience of watching the record of first contact with an extraterrestrial species, and learning the origin of the conflict that the four main human characters will find themselves in.

The first one given clear focus is a young woman, called Tilly by some, named Talia Beanfield. She is the “Life” officer on board the ship, working to keep the small crew psychologically sound and functional. Talia is in many ways the most well-informed of the crew, understanding when actions they take are merely for the purpose of public relations or personal distraction. As the first character the reader really gets into the head of in the main narrative, Talia represents something of an audience surrogate.

The four main characters include Gilly, short for Gilligan (although he hates that name), a technician who helped develop the Providence class ship. He never wanted to be a soldier, and it’s very clear he is on the ship primarily because he sees the ship itself as vitally important. From early on it’s clear things are being kept from him, and that he is perhaps over-confident in his expertise.

The captain is a woman named Jackson, married and extremely duty oriented on a ship where everything is automated. Talia thinks that the captain is glad to be away from home. She also suspects the woman dislikes her, and frequently runs fantasies of situations where the captain demeans her through her head. Jackson also, from early in the book, displays a distrust for the ship and its artificial intelligence.

Last of all is Anders, the weapons expert, an emotionally immature figure on a ship where weapons fire is automated, as are targeting and even kill confirmation. Anders has no respect for authority or even the situation, and frequently seems to suggest dangerous or downright stupid actions in an effort to entertain himself.

Anders’ relative contempt for his own and others’ safety is well illustrated when he attempts to upgrade a game of dodgeball he frequently plays with Gilly by using throwing stars instead of balls. This is partly due to a desire for violence and partly due to a steady addiction to painkillers. Both reasons suggest a lack of responsibility, and the problems they create build quickly.

These are, of course, just the initial impressions the reader is given of each character, with the four gaining more dimension as the book devotes time to each individual, not only to a close third person look at them, but also to their back story, their experiences with one another, and their respective ways of handling a crisis.  It’s a very good structure, with each chapter focusing on one character, sometimes overlapping in time span with the chapter involving another character.

From their first appearance the extraterrestrials — nicknamed “salamanders” — are given an utterly alien visual design and an only slightly less so behavioral pattern. First contact is bloody, and goes very badly for the human beings involved. By the time of the main narrative the war has been going for some time, and the reader is able to quickly pick up on the strange space-born nature of this threat, how it seems in small ways to parallel certain earth-based species and yet simultaneously do things that just seem to not make sense. For example, combat against the aliens frequently ends with 100% casualties on the part of the salamanders, yet in spite of that their tactics seem to steadily evolve. The question of how they are learning is one that perplexes the crew, although they quickly discover that someone else may have figured it out long before.

In addition to the conflict with the alien species, there is reason to be worried about the ship itself. It is only the fifth Providence class ship put into service, and as such is one of relatively few purely artificial intelligence-run vessels. While this could be seen as a simple push for ludditism, the fact that the ship itself starts deceiving the crew makes both the reader and characters question what is happening. This is first imparted to the reader when Gilly discovers that many of his repairs were unnecessary if not outright fictitious, but later with bigger and stranger actions.

Each time the narrative takes a twist, readers will find themselves guessing which of a number of solutions will be used, as well as the reason for what has occurred. In some cases they may be right, in others they will probably be wrong. Max Barry has made the interesting decision to leave openings in many places, questions as to what exactly was going on in a situation. Was the ship malfunctioning or merely operating on a level that the crew do not understand? Not only is there room to debate this for certain major actions, but even for minor ones. Further, the motivations of the alien species, indeed the question of their sapience, frequently appears ,particularly later in the book. It is known that there are sympathizers on Earth, people who instinctively believe that the corporate and government power structures have to one degree or another engineered the war for political and monetary reasons. True or not, a reader will understand and believe such a set of ideas could appear.

The horror elements are obvious from the title onward: while the word providence has many different contexts and connotations, it is hard to ignore that the book and the class of spacecraft are named after the birthplace of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Indeed, the slow-building sense of dread throughout the story, the different types of problem and strange nature of the extraterrestrials make this name choice all the more obvious.

Yet the nature of the ship could easily be seen as somewhat related to Lovecraft and his style as well. The intellectual of the group, Gilly, frequently claims that the ship should not be compared to a human being both because the ship is electronic and because it simply works on a level beyond them. The comparisons to lovecraftian entities and horror are hard to deny. Further, the steady revelation of the ship’s nature draws upon such imagery, managing to find something smaller than the insects Lovecraft used in his comparisons.

Providence is just over 300 pages, and packs more into that page count than many novels twice as long. There is societal critique, detailed interpersonal examination and interaction, horror involving both the exterior and interior threats, and more. From the front cover, an individual in a spacesuit deep in what appears to be blood, the reader understands they are getting both science fiction and horror. Yet Max Barry impresses by producing so much more as well.

This volume is easy to recommend, taking hold of the reader and gripping them tightly until the final moments. The characters grab the attention of a reader, the situation is familiar to a genre fan but evolves in interesting ways, and the story stands as an interesting multilayered horror story. Providence is well worth picking up.

(Putnam, 2020)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.