In this science-fiction thriller, Max Barry explores interplanetary travel, human–extraterrestrial close encounters and the relentless spin of warfare. Manned by a four-person crew, Providence Five is the latest warship that’s going into deepest, darkest space on a search-and-destroy mission. Typical of the genre, the enemy aliens in the novel are depicted as intelligent beings but are suitably heinous: nicknamed “Salamanders”, they live in hives and have “wide, lipless mouths … black, orblike eyes”, six limbs and a body of translucent resin. Their power lies in their teeming numbers and their cunning.
Barry exhibits the same imaginative brio in this latest novel as he did in previous books such as Jennifer Government and Lexicon. There is a well-aimed, cynical swipe at the media circus, and the way large-scale events require the gloss of PR propaganda. Not allowed to simply go forth and kill aliens, the crew have to constantly file (edited) clips of their endeavours for those following back on Earth. Moreover, though the carefully chosen team are presented as brave warriors, the very best of humanity chosen to “defend our brilliant blue bubble against an evil alien aggressor”, the reality is that the ship is commandeered by artificial intelligence; the crew are just window-dressing. After all, warships are expensive, and there needs to be a human front to the operating systems in order to effectively bankroll their continued existence. That the AI on board is every bit as unfathomable and erratic as the creatures clamouring outside is the pivot on which the novel hangs.
Though Providence is filmic with its punchy dialogue, propulsive narrative and trip-wire suspense, Barry spends enough time with each of the quartet to make you care about them all: they are not mere disposable fodder for the hulking beasts. The team dynamics of Jackson, Gilly, Anders and Beanfield – an equal number of men and women – are well teased out: the book charts the minor annoyances and dangerous follies of having to survive in a confined space millions of miles from home, alongside others who must be entrusted to ensure both your wellbeing and the wholesale destruction of a monster species. Providence exposes the fallibility of humans and machines in a clever and entertaining fashion.
Hachette, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Max Barry, Providence".
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