Elizabeth Bear has, in her still-young career, quickly become one of the more lauded science fiction authors of her time. She began with a Campbell Award for Best New Author in 2005, won a Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2006 with the Jenny Casey trio, and earned Hugo Awards for her short fiction in 2008 and 2009. The characteristic Elizabeth Bear story twines elements from multiple speculative genres while conveying a knowing awareness of the conventions of those genres; riffs on figures and themes from classic literary, religious, and mythological sources; depicts characters beyond the white heteronormative (although not, it must be noted, always to the satisfaction of those who identify with the depicted); and wraps it all in a sharp, sometimes bleak aesthetic sensibility that owes much to the old Norse and Germanic sagas. Given the density and erudition of her writing, Bear has also been an astonishingly prolific author, with 15 print novels (plus another co-authored with Sarah Monette) and over 50 short stories to her credit, including several here at Strange Horizons. And indeed, I wonder—when I occasionally see her books on discount tables at bookshops—if Bear may be so prolific as to be off-putting for some potential readers. With so many ongoing projects of uncertain duration, and with series whose books may appear out of chronological order and that may be read in any order, it can be difficult to determine just where one should begin with Elizabeth Bear.
Her Jacob's Ladder sequence, of which Chill is the second volume, seems well-positioned to be a low-risk answer to this quandary. The books form a regular trilogy—with the first volume, Dust, reasonably satisfying as a stand-alone—published as mass-market paperback originals, and at regular intervals (the third volume, Grail, is scheduled for publication in 2011). The presentation certainly feels meant to entice new readers: Dust sported 10 pages of front-copy praise for Bear's work; Chill has 11 pages. And unlike some of Bear's more exotic story scenarios, this trilogy adopts a familiar science fiction setting, the generation starship, and its associated reading protocols. Stories in which successive generations of humans live and die during long journeys to distant destinations have been a staple of science fiction since Don Wilcox's "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" (1940; "probably" the first use of the setting in a genre story, according to Clute & Nicholls's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2nd ed.). Common attributes of the story type were further established by such works as Robert Heinlein's "Universe" (1941), Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958), Gene Wolfe's Long Sun tetralogy (1993-96), and Ursula Le Guin's "Paradises Lost" (2002). These attributes include, among other things, science so advanced that it appears to be magic—in the sense of the fantastic and/or the divine—social structures devolved to something akin to feudalism, and an overall state of amnesia. Moreover something has often gone wrong with the journey in these stories, making for fairly straightforward base plots—get organized! get moving again! disembark!—onto which Bear can work her particular art.
One common conceit of generation starship stories is that their enclosed civilization will have devolved to the point of no longer recognizing the technological bases of society, often of no longer conceiving of a world beyond the ship. The character's dawning comprehension of the true situation in these stories often mirrors the reader's. But one of Bear's twists in the Jacob's Ladder books is that her characters are quite aware of the current state of affairs. To these characters advanced technology—here based in nanotech "colonies" with varying degrees of artificial intelligence—is so commonplace, the ship setting so familiar, that in Dust it all generally went unremarked upon and undescribed. The resulting minimalism gave that first book both a lived-in realism and a cold beauty; the novel had an unobtrusively primal poetry. But this level of pre-existing understanding also meant that readers never caught up with Bear's characters in their knowledge of the world and its history—for readers not well-versed in SF especially, Dust could be quite opaque. And at a basic level I suspect most readers simply had no idea what anything or anybody looked like. I certainly didn't.
Chill represents at least a surface-level change in this regard. Indeed it feels almost like a do-over. Dust was a race across the enclosed world of the starship to establish a rightful Captain before a pretender could be crowned, in order to get the ship underway in the face of impending disaster. Chill sees some of the same characters making a similar chase through many of the same locales in pursuit of an escaped dissident, again in the face of impending disaster. What's different in this trip is the clarification of detail Bear provides about the world and its inhabitants.
One of the iconic scenes of Dust was a nightmare journey through the radioactive propulsion systems of the ship. It was described thus:
Maybe they would give her a gold-lined coffin, cast in lead. They might pour colorless diamonds and topazes through her fingers, so her radiant touch could stain them green and blue, the colors of the abandoned homeworld.
The colors seething in this fatal river.
[ . . . ]
There was a good watery light by which to see the chamber—blue undulations rippled up the walls as if reflected from the river, but in this case the river was the source. (Dust, p. 241)
Early in Chill that scene is revisited in a way that feels almost like a check to make sure we understood:
They had come to Engine running flat out, along the bank of a poisoned river. [ . . . ] It wasn't a reactor coolant leak's fault that it was poisonous. (Chill, p. 48)
Further on this theme, in Dust the first time characters leave a center of habitation and travel through the ship's interior, we're simply told "they stood in the warm air of the corridor," after which "the corridor" is used several more times without additional description (Dust, pp. 60-64). At a parallel point in its story, Chill clarifies what we should imagine of the ship's passageways:
Now, he had the arch of metal sky overhead. Some of the shielding panels were closed against the cold of the Enemy beyond, some jammed open so the chilly green light of the shipwreck nebula shone through, a few of the brightest stars visible beyond. He had the turf underfoot, thickly planted in dandelions and clover, still healing from the trauma of acceleration, the stems of grass here and there bent by a careless foot. (Chill, p. 49)
This filling-in of detail is generally welcome, although I did miss the allusive poetry of Dust's writing, and although Chill's added level of description—"he couldn't do much about the ones humping down the cable toward her, like malevolent drops of molasses slipping along a string" (p. 163)—is not always an unqualified success.
The same might be said of characterization. Dust was a study in contrasts between two young sisters of the ship's controlling family, Perceval and Rien Conn, who had grown up in very different circumstances. Chill concentrates on a pair of older brothers, Tristen and Benedick Conn, from that family's prior generation—and with them it is the similarities that dominate. Both have committed deeds at the behest of their father that they have come to regret, and must confront in Chill; both have lost daughters; both have lived in exile; both seem to have emerged newly galvanized as moral creatures; both are reasonably self-aware and introspective; both indeed think similar thoughts, about themselves and about Perceval and Rien, a filling-in of character detail from the last book. Both even use the same metaphors (of spiders and wasps, pp. 272 and 289). Which is all to say, the pair of protagonists in Chill can feel a bit too similar, too interchangeable.
Bear manages character similarities more deftly in smaller roles. What showcases the core differences between Perceval and Rien (to the extent the latter still exists) are their differing reactions to their increased similarity in the new novel. Both are now legion, and both struggle with new roles indicated by their new names: Captain and Angel. Their character drama, while here given far fewer pages, remains a high point of the series. Meanwhile another family member (readers of the books may want to sketch a family tree), Chelsea Conn, joins Benedick's chase and reminds him of a youthful Caitlin Conn, Benedick's sister and former lover—who in Chill gains some scenes of her own.
Other characters new and old make appearances, including some pages given to Chill's chief human antagonist, which makes this novel work somewhat better than Dust as a race between adversaries. However in both books it's notable just how few people we see in this generation ship, especially beyond the ruling Conn family. Chill at least provides a justification for the absence this time around. But the sense that Chill is often doing precisely this, explicating and filling in gaps from the previous work, describing a world already traveled through and events after the fact, makes for a book that feels rather wonky. It is a race run backwards, a fast-paced chase novel that is pervasively belated.
The other comment to be made on Dust, in addition to its opacity, was that it never quite bared its soul. Works that declare themselves via epigraphs sourced from Shakespeare, Hobbes, Sartre, and the Bible, that reference Marlowe, that invoke Mallory—not to mention evoking the works of Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny—carry an expectation that they will reach for insights worthy of their allusions. Dust never seemed to, and I suggest that Chill is mainly a surface-level change because the same charge might be leveled at it. On top of the simple chase story we are again given some marvelous set pieces (Bear's sheer imagination is second to none, and she gives it freer rein in Chill), a mix of big SF ideas with amusing street-level implementations, decent writing, and plentiful literary references and allusions . However, like Dust before it, Chill never seems interested in making either a logical or an emotional argument about the world based on these elements. And thus when it tries to go a step further and comment on the way the world should be, it can only sound rather banal: "It's about staying alive, not about what's right or wrong," asserts Tristen at the close of the novel, to which Benedick replies, "maybe it should be [about what's right or wrong ]" (p. 308). Given that the society Bear created has a strong conception of justice, and that we've only ever seen both Benedick and Tristen acting responsibly and morally, this falls flat as a revelatory insight. The absence of a more compelling argument is important because, as noted, the plots of these books have been fairly basic, and even in their thinness have tended to take liberties that stretch belief. The plot of Chill seems forced in several ways, from Perceval's initial incapacity, to an unknown MacGuffin whose identity everybody in fact knows yet oddly nobody suspects or even mentions, to a chain of events that depends to a unlikely and unsatisfying degree on being engineered (and engineered rather insensibly). These issues of belief are not unforgivable in a story as unafraid as Chill is to emphasize its existence as story—the mesh of allusions keeps the narrative hovering on the knife's edge between realism and postmodern fable. But blatant contrivances do demand a reason for their forgiveness in a story that makes at least a pretence of plausibility. At most, we start to see in Chill the arrangement of infrastructure to enable such a reason. Which is to say, I can't yet discern what the Jacob's Ladder trilogy is arguing, but I can now at least guess where the trilogy's argument will be found.
In Dust, the young woman Rien Conn eats a fruit from the tree of knowledge located in the sort of large artificial living environment that on the starship Jacob's Ladder is labeled a Heaven. In doing so she becomes a pawn in a war between AI entities called angels by the ship's inhabitants. Chill sees these inhabitants now exiled from the Heavens due to the war. They make their way through the ship hunting and gathering, seeing evidence of receding frost, encountering giant plants and insects and more unlikely creatures still; towards the end of the book, they encounter a community that subsists through agriculture.
What Bear seems to be doing, in other words, is taking us on a travelogue through a religio-historical formulation of human existence. The Jacob's Ladder books are presenting a second iteration of that formulation, with the obvious question being what if anything will be different this time around. The crux of this question is human evolution, certainly one of the prime topics of SF over the past few decades. By the end of Chill, Bear has established two pairs of siblings: the Zelazny-esque long-lived superhuman generation of Tristen and Benedick—contemporary humanity, optimized—and the next generation, Perceval and Rien, who increasingly edge towards posthuman digital, networked consciousnesses. They are dueling conceptions of humanity, that of pre-cyberpunk SF versus post-. The questions that result involve not only nature vs. nurture, but how the two strands of humanity will cooperate or compete, nurture vs. the possibility for personal growth. In the acknowledgments to Dust, Bear listed Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber as an inspiration for her trilogy—books very much about personal growth. In Dust that debt felt rather superficial, based mainly in the intergenerational power struggle amongst the ship's ruling family. Chill, however, starts to make the inspiration clearer, starts to move closer to Amber's borders. Like Zelazny's Corwin, Bear's Prince Tristen, having been imprisoned in the dark for many years, emerges and finds himself changed, more humane; like Zelazny's Benedict, Bear's Prince Benedick, who has dwelt apart and distanced himself from family politics, is drawn back because of interest in his progeny; like a similar point in Zelazny's Chronicles, in Bear's book secret plans come to light, an unmasking occurs, and a family member long thought lost returns. Indeed Chill is a novel of second chances, the book's characters representing almost a catalog of ways to return from the dead: in body; in mind; in memory; in spirit; in morality. Chill, despite its name, is the rare second volume of a trilogy that is warmer and more hopeful than its predecessor.
The starship Jacob's Ladder, then, may be doing exactly what it set out to do. The ship, we learn, was launched in Earth's dying days by a scientifically-minded religious fringe group as a project of forced human evolution and adaptation. What exactly this means and how it was intended to be accomplished has been rather murky in the books; much of humanity's advancement seems to have been unplanned. In Chill we at least begin learn more about the ship's intended destination, more about what caused the shipwreck, more about the Conn family who have long captained the ship. This learning is so fragmented and incremental, though, that two volumes in, we, like the ship's crew, are only beginning to guess at where the journey might lead us.
If Chill doesn't do all that we might hope of a trilogy's second volume towards establishing the overall story, then, it at least accomplishes the minimum of what we could expect of it: it gives those already reading the Jacob's Ladder books just enough to read through to the finale. But it is still too early—and yet edging closer to too late—to say whether this will be a series that should achieve its broader goal, of getting more people to begin reading Elizabeth Bear.
 Plentiful to a jarring degree at times—has the statute of limitations on Gene Wolfe's use of the name Dorcas for a resurrected family member really expired already, especially for a series that shares so many elements with books in Wolfe's Sun cycle?
Matt Denault (email@example.com) has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.