Seven years ago, previously unknown aliens attacked and destroyed the crew of a human spaceship. The brutal event was recorded, so all of humanity has seen it. Ever since, Earth has been at war with these “Salamanders.”
The latest war ship to be developed and deployed against the salamanders is the Providence. It’s equipped with artificial intelligence that takes care of most of the shipboard tasks but is crewed by four humans who’ve been appointed after an arduous selection process. To keep the public support, the crew maintains active social media profiles. This is an important part of their jobs. The crew members of the Providence are:
- Gilly, the computer programmer, is the youngest of the crew and the only one with no military background.
- Talia, the Life Officer, is responsible for the mental health of the crew. She is constantly role-playing and branding herself for her adoring public.
- Anders, the unstable weapons officer, is always seeking a thrill, even when it’s life-threatening.
- Jackson, the no-nonsense captain, seems to lack empathy and doesn’t think the military needs Life Officers. She also doesn’t trust the software that runs the ship.
For the first couple of years on Providence, we see the crew carrying out their daily tasks and destroying Salamanders when they find them out in space — the same kind of duties that all of humanity’s war ships carry out.
But Providence has a special mission. They will travel farther into space than anyone has before. They hope to find the origin of the Salamanders and, possibly, to destroy their home planet. During this time, they’ll be out of touch with Earth. It’s also during this time that the crew starts to realize that the ship has some ideas and agency of its own.
I never warmed up to Providence (2020) because I didn’t like any of the characters except for Gilly. This was at least partly due to Max Barry’s decision to reveal each character’s background and motivations gradually over the course of the novel with most of the reveals happening at about the same time that the plot got exciting — at 70% in. It was at that point that I finally realized what drove the captain, and started to care about her story. That’s also when I learned why Anders (who seems so recklessly unsuitable), was on Providence. It was too little too late for me.
As for Gilly, I was interested in his research into how the aliens were communicating information to their hive mind even after being killed, but this was the only aspect of the story I found interesting and, since I didn’t like most of the characters, this just wasn’t enough for me.
Providence has something to say about bullying, how we use social media to promote ourselves, as well as how public support for a long, drawn-out, expensive war is crucial but hard to come by. “The real war isn’t out there. It’s down here.”
In the end, though the last third of the story was quite exciting, Providence felt meaningless and hopeless. I didn’t get much out of it and I doubt I’ll remember much about it at this time next year. However, I thought Penguin Audio’s edition, narrated by Brittany Pressley, was very well done.