Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
Haimey Dz grew up in an all-female community that she thinks of as a cult. After a bad experience involving a girlfriend, Haimey leaves her home, joins the Synarche, finds a business partner, has her body adjusted a bit (has her feet turned into another pair of hands), and starts a rescue and salvaging business.
Now Haimey and her partner, along with Singer, the sentient AI that drives the ship, travel through space, finding distressed or wrecked spaceships and either saving them or, if it’s too late, salvaging stuff. When we join them, they’re heading toward the source of a signal that seems to come from a ship that was lost a long time ago. Upon arrival, Haimey makes some unsettling discoveries and acquires some technology that somebody else wants. Now they’re being chased by pirates, including a really sexy one that Haimey knows she needs to stay away from.
Gradually Haimey begins to learn what the strange technology can do and why the pirates are after her. She also learns some information about herself that she previously didn’t know (or had been lost to her). She has a lot to process and, as she wonders what she should do, she also wonders who she really is.
Ancestral Night (2019) takes a while to really get going. Haimey tells us the story by journaling it, and it seems she wrote down every single thought she had during the time we’re following her story. She thinks a lot. She overthinks. The plot progresses slowly because for every moment of action, we get many more moments of Haimey’s thoughts and reactions.
But all of that thought means that Elizabeth Bear gives us some interesting things to consider. There’s some talk about political systems, and governmental structures, and some about the nature of consciousness, but these are random arguments between Haimey’s partner and Singer, so they’re not as effective as they would be if they’d been in the context of the story.
What’s more effective (and interesting) is how Haimey works through the various ethical issues related to the society she grew up in and the society (the Synarche) that she has run away to. Haimey calls her homeworld a cult because they genetically engineer children for qualities that they know will reduce conflict and increase contentment so that their society is easier to manage. Haimey resents this conditioning. Yet in the Synarche, where she’s now living, it’s common for people to “tune” the flow of their own brain’s neurotransmitters so they can control their emotions, calming and soothing themselves as needed, or ramping up adrenaline, for example, for fight or flight. (By the way, as a neuroscientist, I can attest that Bear gets all the neuroscience right.)
She’s also concerned about the “right-minding” practiced by the Synarche. While acknowledging that programming people to think the right way may make for a more peaceful society, it can also lead to misuse such as the cult she grew up in … But is there anything wrong with engineering people to be happy and content in a community when the other option is strife and/or loneliness?
There are some dramatic scenes in Ancestral Night that will stay with me but, for the most part, I think I’ll have forgotten the plot of this book by this time next year. However, I won’t forget the questions that Haimey asks. These are good questions that, undoubtedly, we will have to deal with someday soon. As Singer says:
One of the interesting things about programming people of all sorts to be more ethical is that it also makes them more ethical about the limits of programming people to be ethical.
Ancestral Night ends satisfactorily. A second book in Bear’s WHITE SPACE series, Machine, is expected in October and is set in the same universe with different characters. I’m likely to try it.
The audio version of Ancestral Night, produced by Simon & Schuster Audio, is nicely narrated by Nneka Okoye. It’s 17 hours long.
My favorite line from Ancestral Night: “That sucked like a singularity.”