Every once in a while you run into a book or a movie or some work of art or entertainment that you find yourself admiring all to bits without actually enjoying. It's unpredictable, one of those your-mileage-may-vary things, and, unhappily, for me it's happened with Elizabeth Bear's Dust.
In so many ways, this book is dazzlingly conceived. I just didn't find it especially entertaining reading. Bear's worldbuilding here is sound, and she recontextualizes a whole plethora of tropes familiar to both hard SF and fantasy in such a way that virtually all of it feels fresh. Viewed objectively Dust has all the makings of a work of unfettered genius. But for all the considerable imagination Bear poured into it, it always felt aloof. Reading Dust was like viewing an immaculately sculpted marble figurine inside a glass case in a museum. I can appreciate the beauty. But it isn't letting me in.
The premise is way kewl. A generation ship called Jacob's Ladder has been stranded for 500 years in orbit around a white dwarf binary that's so unstable that as the book opens, it's threatening to go nova at any moment. An exercise in what the characters call forced evolution, the vessel is a maniacal tinkertoy hodgepodge of simulated planetary environments spanning miles. As the curtain rises, the posthuman inhabitants of the ship have divided both into classes — the nano-enhanced Exalts lording it over the unenhanced Means — and warring noble houses. Also in conflict are the distributed AI's that run the ship, most of whom, for reasons that appear mostly just aesthetic on Bear's part, have taken on the names of angels from Judeo-Christian and Islamic myth (Metatron, Samael, Asrafil, etc.). In the captains' chair is another AI, calling itself Jacob Dust, for all intents and purposes the ship's god. Here the theological metaphors are laid out: just as Jacob's Ladder in Judeo-Christian myth represented humanity's desire to ascend to the divine, so too does the forced evolution experiment aboard the generation ship reflect a similar hubris.
The root of the conflict concerns just who is going to repair the ship and lead it out of danger. You'd think that petty issues of propriety and factionalism would disappear before the looming specter of annihilation by exploding sun. But actually, human beings would in all likelihood be exactly that stupid. If we were on the verge of imminent doom, you'd probably see Republicans and Democrats wasting just as much time sniping at each other as they do now rather than working together to solve the problem. So there's little reason to assume our evolved descendents would be any more sensible.
Perceval is an angel captured by the ruthless Ariane, who has usurped her own House of Rule and done the dishonorable thing of cutting off Perceval's wings after her surrender. Ariane's actions are meant as a provocation to all-out war with Perceval's house, Machine. Perceval is looked after in her captivity by a young maid, one of the aforementioned Means, named Rien. Perceval reveals to Rien's shock that the two of them are sisters. Rien frees Perceval to stop the impending war, and once Perceval has installed the nanotech necessary to elevate Rien to the ranks of the Exalt, the two of them try to make their way back to Machine. This propels us on an often phantasmagoric journey through the diverse environments ("Heavens") in the vessel. Bear's inventiveness is firing on all twelve cylinders here. I enjoyed such eerie touches as the "fish" that float aimlessly through deserted zero-G corridors overgrown with vines, and the little power tool named Gavin that has reconstructed itself in the shape of a mythical basilisk, who then becomes Rien's traveling companion.
Dust starts to feel like an epic fantasy novel — in particular the type written by an author obsessed with politics — far more than it does SF. And I think herein lies the problem. Just as in plot-heavy fantasies all about political squabbles, the narrative becomes excessively busy with supporting characters and their disparate agendas. Following it wouldn't be such a chore if I could muster up a personal stake here.
But the only characters to whom readers are likely to feel much emotional connection are Rien and Perceval (and my connection even to Perceval was tenuous). Thus the actions of the myriad angels and Exalts we meet along the way didn't elicit much in me, because they didn't move me as characters. Few of the supporting characters even stand out. I know Bear wants me to be shocked along with Rien every time she discovers that this or that person is her mother, father, uncle, or whatnot, but the best I could work up was a shrug. I suspect my empathy for everyone would have been a little stronger had I not been consistently annoyed by their endless self-destructive idiocy. If these characters are so foolishly determined to wipe each other out, why exactly should my pulse be racing over the fact their sun is about to go all asplodey?
Much of the plot centers on Dust's attempts to seduce Perceval into a kind of mind-meld in order to gain full control of the ship and hold off Dust's chief rival, Samael. Bear isn't as clear as she needs to be on exactly what the limitations are on the powers of both Dust and the angels. It's as if Dust is virtually omnipotent when the plot needs him to be, then has limitations when Bear needs to press the story's conflict. When Rien and Perceval first escape, Dust, observing the situation, takes control of Perceval's nanotech bonds and turns them into an AI called Pinion that reconstructs itself in place of Perceval's severed wings. Dust can therefore observe and control Perceval at whim. But once Dust has captured Perceval, he can't persuade her to merge — which Perceval resists due to her growing love for Rien and her fear of losing her identity — even though there seems no reason he couldn't just flat take her over. (Occasionally Bear's handling of Dust's seduction attempts leads to unintentional comedy, too. At one point Dust tells Perceval, "We are the world." And I couldn't get Michael Jackson's voice out of my head for the rest of the day.)
Sigh. So here's what we have: a brilliantly imagined setting and smartly conceived premise, undone by unappealing characters and an overworked, frenetic plot. I will give Bear props for producing a piece of storytelling relatively fresh and unique in a genre far too slathered with formulaic crap and knockoffs of knockoffs. She remains one of SF's few distinctive voices. If Dust doesn't succeed in my estimation, I'll happily put it down to an earnest effort by a real talent to push boundaries, something I'll always consider more admirable than a mediocrity tossing off mediocrity for an audience of easily pleased mediocrities. You may absolutely love Dust and feel the bond to its characters that missed me. But whether one of her books works for me or doesn't, I'll still be the first to call Elizabeth Bear a remarkable SF writer who's leaving many of her contemporaries in the dust.