Review Part I: Dust by Elizabeth Bear

I picked up Dust for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club.  I want to read more science fiction; I definitely want to read more science fiction written by women; and this was a book club I could get my husband to join.  But this book didn’t work for either of us.  I stopped about two-thirds of the way in, but then forced myself to finish.  And by the end I can fairly say I hated it.

You’ll get SciFiGeek’s perspective in a separate post (we are now officially the Geek Family).  Welcome to The Book Stop’s first his-and-hers-review!

Dust is the story of a colony on a generation ship, trapped in orbit around a sun that is about to explode, but without the capacity to find a new planet to colonize.  Its people are doomed but don’t know it.  Two parts of the ship are at war — Rule and Engine.  There is a higher class of beings called The Exalt, and a lower (basically servant) class called The Mean.

Rien is one of the Mean, whose life changes when she is assigned to care for Perceval, a “knight of the realm” from Engine who has been captured by Ariane, the corrupt Captain of Rule.   Perceval’s wings have been brutally severed from her body and she is waiting to be “eaten” —  in this world the Exalt don’t just kill each other, they eat each other’s knowledge and memories. While Rien is caring for Perceval, Perceval tells her that they are in fact half-sisters, and Rien is actually an Exalt who was hidden by her parents (for reasons unclear) as a servant.

Perceval’s capture is intended to spark a war between Rule and Engine, so Rien frees Perceval and they both flee Rule to find their father, who can prevent a war and challenge Ariane for command of the ship (it’s not until later that they  discover the entire ship is about to be burnt to a crisp).  In order to reach Engine safely, Perceval gives Rien the powers of an Exalt, which she is supposed to have anyway.  This means she has a “nano-colony” living inside her that provides super-health and sensory abilities.

They discover a second plot by the Exalt, which is that Perceval has been deliberately infected with a virus that is meant to destroy everyone in Rule.  So they also have to figure out a way of stopping the virus from killing everyone.

As they are fleeing, they are watched by a being called Dust, who is basically the technology-based “mind” of the ship.  Dust is one of a group of gods and sub-gods who are killing each other for dominance of the ship, and while doing so they manipulate the actions of the humans on the ship.  So Dust and his brother Samael are “playing” with Rien and Perceval, though it’s far from clear who is on whose side.  Dust grows a pair of nano-wings on Perceval that actually can control her internal thoughts and move independently.  Perceval is horrified to find herself with a pair of “parasite” wings on her back that she has no control over.

When my husband describes the book, it probably won’t sound anything like this.   That’s because the technology and science in this book just didn’t mean anything to me.  So I’ll let him talk about generation ships and nano-technology.

Now if this story makes sense to you so far, great.  I don’t mind a story that’s really confusing in the beginning, if it all comes together in the end. I feel like Bear tried to do that but failed.  Instead she just makes things more and more complicated.  Rien freeing Perceval, discovering her family, gaining new powers and trekking all over the ship and even into space — that was pretty interesting.  But as I read further it fell into a mess of too many plots and subplots and higher meanings.  The story in the end becomes about gods and evolution and some grand experiment in the human race. It’s almost two stories happening at once.

I hated Bear’s writing style.  The characters are completely undeveloped and are basically just symbols of some greater (religious?) allegory.  Boo.  I don’t want to read symbolism, I want a story with three-dimensional characters and good dialogue.

Instead, Bear is guilty of overdramatizing each sentence, leaving what I think is the real drama undeveloped. Instead of dialogue, the characters speak in riddles and mysterious statements.  There is little emotion as Rien discovers an entire family she’s never known — a sister, uncle, and the father and mother who gave her away.  Rien and Perceval profess their love for each other over and over but it’s stated not developed.

The symbolism in the book is overwhelming, hit-you-over-the-head ridiculous. Every chapter begins with some literary quote with the word “dust” in it, as if that provides an overall meaning to the book.  I kept thinking of Bill and Ted saying “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”  Rien of course means “nothing” in French, and Perceval is literally an angel — Bear devotes more time to her wings than her character.  The ship’s name?  Jacob’s Ladder.  As Rien and Perceval trek from Rule to Engine, they encounter places with names like Heaven and enemies with names like Inkling.  The head of the household staff in Rule is named Head — oh, but she is “ungendered” so Bear cleverly uses pronouns like “hir”.  Why be creative with pronouns and then name someone Head?  In Heaven Rien is asked to eat fruit from the garden, which of course isn’t just fruit.  And one more thing — the ruling class ACTUALLY bleeds BLUE blood.

If I enjoyed the book more I could read all of these things as Bear playing on religious symbols and conventions.  She does seem to mock the princess-hidden-as-servant and the fruit-of-temptation analogies.  I’m sure you could make the argument that there are many more layers than I’m giving her credit for.  But it didn’t help the story any.

I also hated the overly sexual tone of the book, especially as there isn’t any kind of real sexual relationship in the book.  Rien’s first description of Perceval is “The girl was tall, almost sexless in her slenderness and anything but sensual, though she was naked except for streaks of indigo blood, and dirt, and manacles.”  Which to me read as bizarrely sexual while saying the opposite.  How are Exalt powers transmitted?  Through a kiss.  Rien spends the book lusting after her half sister, who says she is “asexual” but doesn’t explain why.  Apparently the ruling class siblings all have sex with each other, and Rien at some point has sex with a hermaphrodite in a scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

In the end, I found the book painful to read.  There’s a good story in there somewhere, about sisters and ruling classes and treachery and a civilization looking for a home.  There are good action sequences as Rien and Perceval race through the ship and escape radioactive bad guys (at one point Rien even gets to wear self-fighting armor).  But ultimately it’s drowned in a lot of overwritten prose and laughable symbolism.

As my first foray into science fiction written by women, it was not a success.  But of course I’m not going to write off an entire gender without reading more. Suggestions anyone?

  2 comments for “Review Part I: Dust by Elizabeth Bear

  1. February 1, 2011 at 11:16 am

    What a great idea – his and hers reviews 🙂
    My husband and I are both avid readers, but unfortunately for our bookshelves, we don’t read the same type of books at all, lol.

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