Numerous flaws detract from Elizabeth Moon’s ambitious 2019 galactic odyssey ‘Ancestral Night’

June 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 28, 2019

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits Connecticut-born author Elizabeth Bear with 46 titles; her first book, Hammered, the initial entry in a trilogy, appeared in 2003. Her latest work, published this year, is Ancestral Night; despite her prolificacy, it was the first novel of hers that I read. (I have read at least one of her stories, a military science fiction tale in Moon’s Vatta’s War universe from the largely excellent Infinite Stars anthology, which struck me as being mediocre.)

Ancestral Night is narrated by Haimey Dz, engineer aboard the two-person salvage tug. Her vehicle is called Singer, the handle favored by its artificial intelligence; in fact, the “shipmind” is usually as difficult to distinguish from the vessel carrying it as a person’s mind is from her body. As the story opens, Singer, Dz and their pilot, Connla Kurusz, are approaching an anomaly well outside the usual galactic travel lanes.

The trio expect to find a wrecked spacecraft but actually locate something far more complicated. When Dz boards the abandoned alien-built vessel, she finds that it generates artificial gravity, a capability that the multiracial galactic government called the Synarche lacks. Dz also makes two other discoveries: The ship was involved in, to put it mildly, unsavory drug trade, and that its complement was evidently murdered by a human.

Dz learns the last fact because the saboteur — presumably someone from the rogue Autonomous Collective Republic of Freeports — left behind a suspicious device bearing English lettering. (The Freeporters “operate exclusively in English,” Singer notes. “It’s kind of a fetish with them,” Dz replies. “Dates back to some race-purity nonsense that didn’t make any sense two hundred and ago and makes even less so now.”)

Perhaps rashly, Dz triggers the mechanism. It temporarily disables the ship’s gravity and opens its hatches, which explains why the crew is gone; what’s more, it injects Dz’s hand with a mysterious substance.

Dz’s contamination impedes the process of connecting Singer to what the engineer dubs Milk Chocolate Marauder long enough for a Freeport corsair to pop out of hyperspace and begin approaching at speed — a development that the unarmed tug and its crew view with justifiable alarm:

“I can cut the derrick loose. We can ditch the prize and run.” I kicked across the cabin toward a control panel, that damned heavy hand making me veer slightly off course. There were explosive pins, for dangerous cargo. We couldn’t afford the loss, but it was better than taking a ride on a rail-gun pellet. It had to be manually done, though; that was the sort of thing that came with a physical safety override. “You’ll have to buy me a minute.” 

“Hailing,” Singer said, and I thought, Better you than me. 

Hatch cover, emergency switch. Override code. I wasn’t looking anymore, but I swear I felt the guns tracking through the prickles on my scalp. Through the senso, definitely. 

Somebody is staring at you. 

Connla swore, and my he’d jerked around a second before I would have slapped the final release. The pirates were so close I didn’t see anything — the slugs would have ripped through Singer’s hull before I could have even realized what was happening, let alone reacted — but I didn’t feel an impact, either, and I was in contact with the hull. “Sitrep!” 

“Warning shot,” Connla said. 

I reached for the release again, and felt the whole ship shudder violently, the harsh metallic rip of tearing hull. Something — the bulkhead — struck me, and I caromed off a panel and lost all sense of up and down. 

Ranging shot,” Singer amended, sense cutting over the hot whistle of escaping atmosphere. As the ship spun wildly around me, I grabbed with all four hands for the nearest rail. 

For anything at all. 

***

The terrible shrieks continued — rending metal, and venting air. I couldn’t breather, and thought we’d blown, but then I realized from the savage pain in my back that it was my diaphragm spasming from the force of the thump I’d taken. … I fetched up against a panel and … stabilized, then gritted my teeth and punched myself in the solar plexus to get my lungs started again. 

Singer makes a narrow escape, to an orbital station called Downthehatch, but trouble has not followed but preceded the tug to its would-be refuge. The pirate raider that forced Singer and crew to cut the Milk Chocolate Marauder loose is already docked at the outpost. Worse yet, Dz soon discovers that the station administration may be in the Freeporters’ pockets.

In short order, Dz is openly approached by a Freeporter named Zanya Farweather, who shows signs of contamination by — or is it symbiosis with? — the same outlandish nanotechnology that the engineer was exposed to on the sabotaged ship. Dz expeditiously withdraws to Singer (although not before dubbing Farweather “sexy pirate”). Pages later, the tug makes an extremely abrupt departure that leaves it, Connla and Dz wanted by the law.

‘Ancestral Night’ by Elizabeth Bear.

Guided by Dz’s exotic nanotechnology — a powerful tool that Farweather also has, and has had more time to learn how to control — Singer goes fishing for an even more valuable salvage hidden in a distant part of the galaxy. This time, however, the tug is pursued both by the pirate corsair as well as a small Synarche patrol fleet. Eventually, Farweather and Dz match wits on an even more fantastic alien vessel headed to a destination that the engineer can only guess at.

Bear guides things to a truly rousing climax involving lawbreakers, law enforcers, a fantastic star-sized computer that uses music to communicate and boasts an enormous cloak of highly reflective moving scales, a rogue alien civilization with a deep-set contempt for the Synarche, and an immense fleet of mysterious sentient living starships with a vendetta.

Ancestral Night has some engaging moments, that chase being one of them. Alas, the narrator makes for poor company: She’s got a terrible sense of humor, and she spend too much pages wallowing in self-pity for my comfort. Granted, Dz is a very damaged person: She was oppressed by the “clade” into which she was born, and she was victimized by people she met in an early attempt to break free of the cult-like all-female community that had raised her from parturition. But the character’s personal history, while tragic, doesn’t make up for her being a pill.

An arguably more significant problem with the novel is that Moon attempts to tackle big issues, such as the nature of society, by having Dz engage in lengthy, tedious discussions with Singer and Farweather and her own self. While I applaud Moon’s ambition, too much of the volume made me feel as if I were trapped in a dorm-room debate between a pair of voluble undergraduates who aren’t as smart as they believe themselves to be.

On a lesser note, I found a number of signs that the book was rushed to publication; indeed, the author notes in her acknowledgments that “sometimes creativity does not operate on schedule.” The text includes a few usages of clademother(s) and a lone instance of linemothers; similarly, interlocutor pops up once when interceptor is the word that actually makes sense.

Dz makes enough lame puns and contradicts herself enough times that I felt the editorial process was truncated. For instance, “[Y]ou always wanted to make a legend,” Dz tells herself precisely one sentence before thinking, “That was a lie… I never had wanted to be famous.” This suspicion was only heightened by two typos that I marked. (A fix “is to remove the desire to exploit the system or others members” in chapter 7; a colony was “the biggest … habitation I had ever visited, at the time, and the also first I’d ever been to…” in chapter 21; emphasis added by me in both cases.)

Moon is a talented writer with ambitious ideas. Alas, Ancestral Night is uneven enough that I can’t recommend to anyone who isn’t already a fan of hers.

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