Science Fiction

Review Part II: Dust by Elizabeth Bear

Hi!  I’m CurlyGeek’s husband, SciFiGeek72.  Before I start my review, I should probably give a little background on what I like to read so you can see where I’m coming from.  Unlike my wife, I’m a more traditional science fiction reader, and for pleasure, I largely stick to sci-fi with a little historical fiction thrown in for good measure.  I avoid fantasy books and completely ignore anything considered “literature.”  Why read about someone’s feelings – I get that all day in real life!  If I’m reading for pleasure, I want to be transported somewhere I’ve never been before.

And while great sci-fi explores the impact of technology on the human condition, well written three dimensional characters are less important to me than the “big idea.”  By “big idea” I mean the advanced technology/society/concept that serves as the primary science fictional driver in the book.  And a book doesn’t need to have just one “big idea.” But if you want to keep my attention, that “big idea” has to be fascinating, thought provoking, internally consistent, and realistic to the world described in the story.  The idea doesn’t necessarily need to be a new one, but it needs a new twist or has to be executed in a new way.  If an author can add well written, three dimensional characters to one or more big ideas, then I’ll be buying their books every time!  Bottom Line: many criticize sci-fi for lacking interesting characters.  That critique doesn’t hold water for me.  What I can’t stand is the lack of a “big idea” or one badly executed.  As a quick point of reference, some of my favorite authors are: Peter Hamilton, Charles Stross, Robert Sawyer, Alastair Reynolds, Walter Jon Williams, and Vernor Vinge.

This brings me to my review of “Dust” by Elizabeth Bear.  Unlike my beautiful wife, I still read paper books.  My first inkling that I was in for a bad read was the book’s back cover where it is loudly endorsed by “Romantic Times.”  Romantic Times!!!????  Oh CRAP! But, I pushed on, buoyed by the Amazon.com reader reviews and the broad generation ship concept.

As an aside, I love movies.  Consequently, I read lots of movie reviews.  My favorite type of movie review however is the bad review – the one where the author destroys the movie and everyone associated with it.  This is going to be one of those reviews.  I’ll try to include as little spoiler info as possible.  But don’t worry; you’ll want to avoid this book like the plague, so I won’t really be spoiling anything.

“Dust” is a profoundly bad book.  Here’s a quick synopsis: a damaged generation ship is marooned around a star that’s about to explode.  The protagonists need to get their act together to repair the ship and move it out of harm’s way.  The main characters are Rien, a stereotypical fantasy lead (works as a kitchen drudge but is secretly a “lost princess”) and Perceval, her long lost sister and a “knight” of an enemy kingdom who has her wings severed by a hardly referenced character, only to gain them back through a poorly described and meaningless process.  The book is basically a “quest” style story with our two heroes breaking out of captivity, then “questing” through the ship, meeting some friends and enemies along the say, learning what they need to in order to save the ship, and thwarting the plans of more powerful beings who were trying to use them.  It’s a fairly standard fantasy plot, one you’ve probably read dozens of times.

In fact, the story is so cookie-cutter it can’t really be considered science fiction.  I have a feeling that Ms. Bear’s editors told her that her fantasy novel was fine, but that sci-fi was selling better so could she make one instead?  The book reads like she (after the fact) slapped some science fictional elements to a fantasy book: instead of stone steps in a castle, there are polycarbonate steps in the castle; instead of ‘magic’, there’s ‘nanotech’ to make the unexplainable happen; instead of the Gods influencing our characters, there are the remnants of the ship’s broken artificial intelligence; it goes on and on.  Throughout the book, the characters are surrounded by technology yet never really affected by it.

And then there’s the “generation ship” they’re all living on (the supposed “big idea”).  One of my keys to good sci-fi is thought provoking technology that’s logical and consistent.  So, what was the purpose of the generation ship?  It certainly wasn’t colonization.  Their destination is never discussed.  The only “mission” the author ever reveals is a desire to “evolve gods” from the passengers.  Huh?  If you’re sending a generation ship, you hope you can produce a stable enough society/system to survive all the way to their destination to colonize that planet.  “Dust,” however is supposedly an evolution experiment designed to result in ‘gods.’  If that’s true, why send it somewhere?  Why not just orbit around your home sun so you can watch (and reap the rewards of) the results?  And why send out an unstable system?  You’d have no idea whether it would end up compatible with the ecosystem of the plan you want to colonize!  Basically she just hoped could engender a sense of awe and wonder and the reader wouldn’t question the underlying assumptions.

Then there’s the magic/nanotech.  At two critical points in the book, the characters go out into space and their “nanotech colonies” completely protect them from the extreme cold, vacuum, and radiation.  Yet in a throw-away section of the book, one character discovers part of the ship filled with tens of thousands of corpses in freezing tubes who cannot be revived.  What?  They’re in the same state the main character was in when she was in space!!!  The author has already described a technology that can do much more than restore a frozen corpse.  Why won’t it work in this situation?  No explanation is given and this thought never occurs to any of the characters.   And why would you carry the weight of thousands of corpses in freezing tubes anyway?  The narrator/god/broken AI says for their DNA.  Then why carry the whole bodies asks one of the main characters?  “There are many uses for corpses” says the AI, and no further explanation is given!  At multiple points in the book, characters’ observations on the absurdity of the ship’s technology are glossed over.  It’s as if the editors left notes for Ms. Bear on plot holes and her response was to write around them with as little effort as possible.

Bottom Line: The “big” idea is poorly designed, internally inconsistent, and badly executed.  Ms. Bear slapped some sci-fi technology on her fantasy story and hoped the reader wouldn’t know the difference.  Instead of a sense of wonder, I’m left with the sense of WTF?!

The final nail in the coffin is her writing style.  Every chapter is written like a soap opera and ends with some melodramatic revelation.  In my head, each overwrought reveal was accompanied by some ‘duhh-duhh-duhhhhhhhh’ music.  None of the characters (heroes or villains) have any personality and I never cared who lived or died.  Befitting its romance novel undertones, there’s some sex, but it doesn’t advance the story and is essentially there to titillate (some hinted incest and a hermaphrodite).  Then there’s all the pointless symbolism heaped into every sentence.  The only reason I finished this book was to write this review on my wife’s blog.  This was the first time I read something by Elizabeth Bear; it will be my last.  But I’m looking forward to writing future reviews for CurlyGeek’s blog!  Thanks for letting me post, babe!

4 thoughts on “Review Part II: Dust by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Man, I wish you guys would tell us how you really feel about this book! I really enjoyed getting the dual perspectives (warnings!) on this book. This ‘his and hers’ review idea is really interesting.

    • I’m usually more moderate but really hated this one. Though it’s too bad we came out so similar in our reviews, given that we read science fiction VERY differently! More argument would have been fun. Maybe the next one!

  2. Pingback: January Novel Book Club Discussion: Dust by Elizabeth Bear « Dreams & Speculation

  3. Clearly a universally bad book is just… bad. Good to know!

    Nice method of side-by-side reviews. Even though (or perhaps because) you both disliked (or… hated) it, I got a really good impression of what this book is about, looked at from a number of different angles.

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