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Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-missed Iain M. Banks's 'the Culture' universe - for example the quirkily named ships, though here they are more poetic than humorous, and the AI shipminds that are characters in their own right, though Bear's are less entirely emancipated that Banks's.

When it comes to the ideas, there are two broad strands. One is physics. Although the ancient alien technology is a different matter, the conventional spaceships have Alcubierre-White drives - based on the closest thing we have from real physics to the design for a real warp drive. This is lovingly described and plays a major part in the storyline. We've also get a rather nice description of (and plotline involving) the galaxy's supermassive black hole. More significantly, though, as a novel of ideas, the book explores the nature of personal freedom within society.

This is done in part by contrasting Bear's equivalent of the Culture - the Synarche - with a group of pirates. (As an aside it's fascinating how there seem to be spontaneous emergences of themes in books - we've also seen recently Alastair Reynolds' Revenger series with pirates as a major factor.) In all honesty, the 'pirates' in Ancestral Night would probably be better labelled anarchists as their motivation is significantly more sophisticated than stealing pieces of eight. It's perhaps a reflection of the fact that characters with ambivalent morals tend to be more interesting, that I found myself lining up more with Farweather, the main antagonist, rather than with Dz.

I only have two small moans. One is the not uncommon urge for the author to tweak just one aspect of the language - in this case, Bear changes the names for time units. So, for instance, days become diars and light years (I know it's not a time unit, but it's the time part of it that changes) become light-ans. Any far-future book is, in effect, translating the language, and it just doesn't make sense to change one tiny aspect - particularly one that's used by science, so is more likely to remain consistent. It just grated a little. The other small issue is that the book is rather too long, mostly because the author's motto of 'show don't tell' is ignored and we get long internal monologues - often lasting several pages - which don't move much forward. This contrasts with the dialogues, where the political side of the ideas strand is mostly advanced, which, if anything, can be too short.

These points are small though. This is certainly the best science fiction novel I've read in 2019 so far and I look forward to see how Bear develops the characters and her impressively rich universe.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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