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Dust
Elizabeth Bear
Bantam Spectra, 342 pages

Dust
Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear shares a birthday with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in central Connecticut. She lived in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas, Nevada, but has returned to Connecticut. Elizabeth Bear is her real name, but not all of it.

Elizabeth Bear Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Companion to Wolves
SF Site Review: Undertow
SF Site Review: New Amsterdam
SF Site Review: Carnival
SF Site Review: Carnival

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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One of the forms from which science fiction and fantasy emerged was the medieval romance in which a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, abides by strict chivalric codes of conduct while on a quest in which he fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a lady. There is often an allegorical aspect to the quest and the various opponents overcome, and a sense that the whole enterprise and its outcome are pre-ordained.

Dust is just such a medieval romance. Oh... it is dressed up in all sorts of futuristic paraphernalia, but essentially we have a quest story featuring angels, knights and spirits. And there is one key scene in which our virginal heroine has sex in a garden and then is presented with fruit from the tree which bestows special knowledge upon her: about as blatant a piece of religious allegory as you're going to find this side of Arthur C. Clarke.

If I begin by describing the situation in purely science fictional terms, it will sound like a classic space adventure tricked out with a few post-cyberpunk flourishes. Centuries before, a generation starship suffered a catastrophic failure. It managed to limp into the system of a binary star while it effected repairs, but the ship was too badly damaged. Over the centuries since then, the various sections of the crew have split into warring factions, while the ship's mind has similarly fragmented. Now the two stars are on the point of falling into each other, and the ship and all aboard her will be destroyed if the crew cannot be united, the mind re-integrated, so they can ride the blast wave to safety.

But that is not the story as it is presented to us, indeed it is only gradually that we come to understand these circumstances. We begin with a serving girl in the ancient seat of the Rule family watching as a knight in armour returns from battle with a captive angel in chains. The angel is, for the moment, without wings since these have been cut from her by a magical "unblade." The angel, though distinctly female, is called Perceval: just think of the weight of medieval allegory that name bears. It won't be the last name with this sort of freight.

The serving girl, Rien (more deep meaning), is given the job of looking after the prisoner until the knight gets around to eating her: institutionalised cannibalism is one of the peculiarities of this society. But when she takes food down to the dungeon, Perceval immediately recognises Rien as her long lost sister. So the serving girl is really an aristocrat, literally a blue blood since the Exalt, as they are known, carry nanoware in their blood which gives them extra powers and incidentally turns it blue. Meanwhile the knight, Ariane, has already usurped power in the family and has deliberately seized the angel in order to foment war. So Rien must rescue Perceval and set out on a hazardous quest to find their father and stop the war.

Dust follows the pattern of the romance, a formula later adopted wholesale by many heroic fantasies. While the quest slowly reveals the peculiar nature of their world, it also takes them through a ritualistic sequence of perils and encounters, including acquiring a strangely heraldic beast as companion and rescuing an imprisoned prince. Meanwhile the privileged knowledge that Rien acquires by eating the fruit in the garden is the memories of "Hero" Ng, the engineer who saved the ship all those centuries before at the cost of his own life. All of which allows yet another piece of overt, not to say heavy-handed, symbolism, since in taking on the engineer's memories our protagonist literally goes from zero (nothing, Rien) to hero.

But all the time we realise that Rien and Perceval's every step is being watched by the sinister Jacob Dust. Dust, it turns out, is a fragment of the ship's mind, that fragment which incorporates the ship's archive of literature and history. He is a ghost, able to materialise and dematerialise at will, taking on any form he wishes; as can his brothers, Samael who controlled the Life Support Systems and is thus the Angel of Death, and Asrafil who controlled propulsion and is the Angel of Blades. These, too, are engaged in internecine warfare, and Dust recognises that Perceval could give him a winning advantage, because he knows what nobody else does, that Perceval is the true heir of the ship's Captain.

Thus we have a neo-feudal system, inheritance by primogeniture, hierarchies of gods and angels, and a hero on a quest to assume her rightful role and heal the world. Forget the futuristic trappings, this is pure medieval romance. And as in medieval romance, there is the sense that everything that happens is pre-ordained. More than that: there is no agency in this novel. Everything that is done is manipulated, our heroes are unwittingly directed along the routes they choose, their encounters are arranged in advance. In a climactic confrontation between Perceval and Dust, Perceval realises that she cannot even trust her own feelings since these, too, are being shaped by Dust. Most of the time this manipulation can be traced back to the quasi-divine Dust and his brothers, but even here there is a long and curious scene in which Dust and Samael consult the Tarot, as if they too are acting on the whim of some other force.

And when Perceval finally assumes the Captain's chair there is a moment of transcendence like her namesake achieving the Grail and ascending to heaven accompanied by choirs of angels. Even if they are disguised as computer programs, this novel is crowded with Gods, Thrones, Dominions, the whole heavenly panoply.

Dust is an entertaining novel, with an attractive pair of protagonists and a hint of (unconsummated) lesbian chic, a carefully worked-out plot, and a smooth writing style that keeps you turning the pages. But in the end, it feels slight. Elizabeth Bear is clearly a fluent and prolific writer, but her style is so smooth you can just glance off the surface. Sometime I'd like to see her slow down a little, maybe acquire a few rough edges to snag the attention, and write the book that will take science fiction in a new and unexpected direction. She hasn't quite got there yet.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.


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