[Book Review] Dust

Dust / Elizabeth Bear (Powell's Books)

I don't even really know where to start when summarizing this book.  I find it a fantastic blending of fantasy and science fiction.  To me the story starts out reading like high fantasy and then slides it way into high technology speculative fiction.  The story explores concepts of humanity, gender, religion, belief, society, and science.

I cannot think of a single way to review or summarize the book without any spoilers.
"Can an angel be imperfectly honest?"

"An angel can be whatever it is created to be," Samuel said, with perfect frankness.  "Humans are the only animals that intentionally, methodically change themselves."
Dust takes place on a generation ship, stranded in space for centuries.  Launched from Earth by fanatical Darwinists seeking to push the bounds of extreme, forced evolution using the ship as an petri dish.  Society is split into Means and Exalts, Engine and Comm.  The ship is the World.  The Angels that oversee the systems are warring for dominance.  War is coming and the twin stars they orbit are dying.

Overall, Dust is a fantastically textured novel.  It is the first of a trilogy, followed by Chill and Grail.  Bear does a fantastic job of setting the scene and slowly teasing out details as you read.  Dust was the September Virtual Speculation read.

Discussion Fodder:
  • What preconceptions or ideas did you form as you started the book?  How accurate were they?  At what point did they start to change?
  • Are there gender roles in Dust?  How are the expressed or sidestepped?  How does Mallory fit within the concepts of gender roles, and how does she subvert them?
  • How does the ability to consume the essence and memories of others effect the shape of a society?
  • The Jacob's Ladder is the world to those who live on it.  A lattice of passageways and habitats, engineering and command, kingdoms and domains.  Does the revelation of Jacob's Ladder as a starship change anything?  Is there any reason that it cannot be a world?  How do the concepts of different things change after so many thousands of years in an 'alien' environment?
  • Are the Exalt still human?  Some of their enhancements are bred and engineered, others implanted.  Are the Exalts monsters?
  • What does necromancy become in a world of fantastical technology?  What else could describe Mallory's role/occupation?
  • In the context of the world, does it make sense to call Dust, Samuel, and the others 'angels'?  What about identifying the original cohesive AI and computer system that ran the ship as 'god'?  What do you think about the use of Hebrew names for these man made angels, and the roles they represent?
  • Dust says he does not believe in prophesy, but does believe in stacking the deck.  Does prophesy ever amount to stacking the deck as people try to fit things within its framework?
  • Dust effectively invades and manipulates Percival's being, pushing her to make the world whole again.  Is he a villain?  Could he be anything but what he is?  Does that matter?
  • The Exalts have lifetimes measured in centuries, or longer, with bodies biologically and mechanically enhanced.  How would you imagine a life within such a framework would change outlook and behaviors?  What do you think of the moralities of the Exalt?  How does it effect their relationships, both romantic and platonic?
  • Rein tells Mallory there's no reason for to change from hermaphrodite to woman because she isn't in love with her.  Rein and Perceval argue about Perceval's celibacy, an elected biological modification.  Is Perceval's celibacy something to be "fixed"?  How does the choices that Mallory and Perceval have made regarding their physical and biological sexual forms shape who they are?  Would Mallory be different if s/he decided to spent half hir time in the form of one gender or the other instead of her blending of the two?  Does Perceval's celibacy change who she is?
  • A Jacob's ladder is many things, a toy, the ship, and the ladder that angels climb to reach Heaven.  "It is the hard path to exaltation."  The distinctions of Exalt and Mean are literal, the test and control groups to see how far mankind can elevate itself.  What do you think about the original mission?
  • What do you make of the heavy use of religious framework within the story?  Particularly considering the creation of life by man's hand and the man-made world in which they live in.
  • Perceval says "It is not a gift of freedom to not seize everything that it is in your power to seize."  How are the characters in this book free or constrained.  Do you see this sentiment reflected in your own life?
  • One of the themes in the book is love and wanting.  Is love more than a mix of chemicals?  How does an AI love its Captain?  How does the ability to change and constrain your emotions change the idea of love?


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