I became aware of Australian writer Max Barry (at that time, spelled Maxx Barry) when he debuted with his first novel Syrup, which concerns a marketing graduate who comes up with a scintillating new idea for Coca-Cola but is beset by backstabbing challenges. It’s an odd, quirkily told tale that has stuck with me over the years. Barry has a captivating style and a way with characterization that keeps you reading almost effortlessly. He followed up Syrup with Jennifer Government, about the dangers of globalism, and then Company, about corporate intrigue. Machine Man was his first real foray into speculative fiction, about advanced limb prosthetics and augmented soldiers. And Lexicon continued Barry’s foray into the genre, focusing on a secret organization performing mind manipulation—a fantastic puzzle box of a book.
Barry’s latest book is Providence, his first full-on science fiction tale. The title refers to a fleet of massive space warships, collectively called Providence, that Earth has built to annihilate an alien species that has viciously murdered a deep-space team of human travelers. Each Providence ship is dispatched to the far reaches of the galaxy, with only a skeleton crew of four crewmates, to root out alien “hives” and eradicate the widespread threat. Why do the ships require only four people, each of whom has sacrificed years of his or her life and taken on enormous risk? Futuristic AI software is in charge, fully capable of executing the mission and anticipating any challenge. Increasingly, the question for the human team is: Why are we here?
Providence is an extremely readable story, and it is quite thought-provoking, more for its ideas about humanity than about the specifics of the alien threat or the hard sci-fi of the Providence ship and its AI technology. With their voices alternating through point-of-view chapters, the characters come across as very real, given fascinating back stories in flashback and interacting with one another believably in the halls of the gigantic ship. All that being said, the final act of the book feels a bit rushed, too anxious to get to the overall message of the book, which I won’t spoil here but puts forward a very real and very depressing reason for why those people are aboard the ship after all.
Highly recommended despite that rushed final act!