Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Max Barry has been a distinct voice in the realm of science-fiction ever since he published his first novel over twenty years ago, and he certainly is intent on spreading it further, as he does with his latest novel, Providence.
The premise is quite simple: four people are tasked with manning, but mostly monitoring a space warship sent to wage war against an alien threat to humanity. However, as they travel further into space, the communications are cut off, and the ship becomes less an less reliable, leaving them stranded in the great cosmic void, headed for war all by themselves.
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Max Barry Sends his Crew to their Doom
Loneliness is a powerful state of being, in the sense we’re largely wired to avoid it for we are, by nature, social creatures. As a matter of fact, the idea of being alone in the universe is so overwhelmingly powerful, the moment we had reason to believe we weren’t alone, we’ve latched on to the concept and have only tightened our grip since. There are countless theories as to what our first contact might bring along with it, an in Max Barry‘s Providence we are treated to a scenario where it carries along war and destruction.
It has been seven years since the first contact was made, and it has become pretty clear humanity is facing the greatest threat to its existence since the beginning of time. The collective decision is made to put together a giant deadly cosmic warship, named Providence Five. Mostly automated and the pinnacle of human technology, this warship is humanity’s play to lay a path for victory. The ship is launched with only a four-man crew, simply tasked with monitoring the progress and reporting it back home via social media.
War seldom goes as planned, and this much is obvious to our four protagonists (Anders, Gilly, Jackson and Talia) the further they drift into space away from their homes. The ship turns out to be not as infallible as they expected, slowly becoming less effective and increasingly capricious. What’s worse, their communications are cut completely, leaving them to their own devices in the oppressive void of the cosmos, forced to wage a war they aren’t cut out for. Humanity’s fate now rests on the shoulders of four desperate people facing their hour of doom, and giving up or turning back was never an option.
The Isolated Adventure of Providence
Now, I don’t know about you, but personally I am quite fond of small, self-contained plots involving few characters interacting in a minimum number of locations. More often than not, they give the author the opportunity to place a profound focus on his characters, their inner worlds, all while exploring various facets of human psychology. These types of novels are definitely difficult to write without making them feel boring or pretentious, which is precisely why I think Providence deserves some attention, managing to accomplish this for the most part, at least in my eyes.
To preface this, I was a bit wary of whether or not Barry could pull it off, especially since my knowledge of his previous works, such as Lexicon, suggested he was more suited to larger-scale overarching stories. Thankfully, my worries were dissipated fairly early on as the characters caught my attention quickly and the overall structure complements their development, slowly making them increasingly complex and realistic as the plot develops.
For each chapter, we are assigned a specific point of view, and none of them lasted long enough for me to get bored or tired of anyone. All four of our characters are different and unique enough in their personalities, thoughts and mannerisms, to the extent where they are easy to recognize. Most importantly though, their distinctiveness between each other adds some interesting layers of complexity as we learn more about how they perceive each other and what they really think of the situations they find themselves in. While our characters may be few and our locations limited, Barry still finds a way to produce interesting elements to keep the plot going, and to my great pleasure they never feel as if they’ve been plucked out of thin air.
A War to Remember
Based on the premise alone, you would be very much forgiven for thinking this book is primarily a character study with a story happening somewhere out there in the background. On the contrary though, Barry dedicates a nearly equal amount of his attention to the war between the humans and aliens.
Speaking of which, I think his depiction of our invaders was very well thought-out, and even though I’m no expert on potential extra-terrestrial lifeforms, some of their facets felt rather believable to me, in the sense they would probably be physically-possible.
While we do of course see them as disgusting and heinous invaders who have come to take literally everything we hold dear, we also get some perspective into their story and motivations as well. In the end, Barry managed the great exploit of eliciting feelings of sympathy in me for the villains… which is difficult to accomplish convincingly for human characters, let alone aliens.
|G.P. Putnam’s Sons
|March 31 2020
Naturally, there is also the part of the story where our protagonists actually, you know, go to war with the aliens. While it does feel to me like Barry is slightly less adept when it comes to cranking up the intensity of the plot, I still consider his writing to be of a very high standard in those moments, largely because he is quite good at making us feel the stakes of our characters’ mission. Along with the moments of well-placed humour and relatively careful social commentary, I found more than enough elements to focus on to never actually feel bored, even during the slower moments.
The Final Verdict
Providence by Max Barry is an excellently-written slower-paced science-fiction novel which focuses primarily on character development, but still offers a solid plot and many additional engaging elements along the way. If you enjoy science-fiction of a more thoughtful and methodical brand, then I have zero doubt you will love this novel.
Max Barry is an Australian author, as well as the creator of the game NationStates and owner of the website “Tales of Corporate Oppression” (talesofcorporateoppression.com).
His first published novel came out back in 1999, titled Syrup, and since then he has written a number of other novels, essays, and short stories. Some of his more popular works include Jennifer Government, Machine Man and Lexicon.