Back in 2006 (April 26th, to be exact) Elizabeth Bear’s Amazon author blog casually mentioned
However, I do have an idea for a really cool space opera kind of thing, revolving around a vast generation ship in which a breakdown of the command structure has occurred. Somewhere between Gormenghast in space, and Upstairs-Downstairs with laser guns.
In other words, ladies and gentlemen: do not walk into this book with any preconceived notions of what a fantasy book should be like, nor what a science fiction book should be like, nor what you may think a science fiction/fantasy book should be like. It helps if you’re familiar with Gormenghast, or perhaps China Miéville‘s work, for this is as much a book about discovery and re-orientating your views of the world as it is about a quest in a gigantic generation starship where civilization has collapsed back into the feudal ages—with its transhuman tech intact.
Ah, transhumanism. In the wrong hands—that is to say, a lot of science fiction books—it becomes magic in science fiction land. But suppose we let it be magic in SF land, rather than trying to explain it away with much hand-waving and pseudo-techno yammering, which is rather useless in the big picture—for transhuman fiction is, if anything, about how it transforms, or does not transform, the human experience. Anything else easily descends into gibberish, not seeing the forest for the trees.
The transhuman technology in Dust is at the level of nanotechnology (another magic incantation out of place in much “hard” SF), where humans and things can be “infected” with “colonies” that repair flesh quickly, enable changes in speed and strength, which is sort of standard, except Dust adds an additional factor with the idea that these little “colonies” can also carry intelligence separately from the fragile tissue of the brain. In other words, things—like Perceval’s nanomesh replacement wings—can begin to harbor intelligence along with transmutability; and intelligence can be passed from person to person through transferring colonies. Like through cannibalism (although this is definitely off-screen and not portrayed graphically).
In fact, there is an intelligent being that mutated over the passing years of this dark age from a laser carpentry hand tool into a sentient “cockatrice”, fitting because its laser eyes are not things you want looking at you if you value your health.
The “nobles” of this strange world, aka the Exalt, are the infectees of the colonies. The rest of the people are not, and are simply normal human beings (this is the Upstairs, Downstairs aspect of the world of Dust). And the Exalt hold the keys to moving the generation ship, Jacob’s Ladder, out of harm’s way when the dwarf star of the solar system it inhabits is about to go nuclear. ((Okay, okay, explode. Whatever. Go nuclear is more fun.)) Unfortunately, there’s political intrigue and quite a lot of infighting between the lands of “Rule” (command) and “Engine” (engineers) and of course the whole collapsed-back-into-the-feudal-ages thing, that’s keeping back progress to a solution.
I find most fascinating, however—and this is just the kind of person I am—the “angels” of Dust. They rank from the less powerful, maybe spirit guides, to the ranks of what we would term seraphim. And yet these are not angels—they’re intelligent programs that run portions of the ship, struck off into separate beings when the ship was damaged long ago. These beings are also involved in their own political intrigues, trying to merge the various separate intelligences back into one that can care for the entire ship—but of course, each individual intelligence wants to end up on top. Thus you have Jacob Dust (the archives of literature and history), Samael (life support systems, who can taketh life away and thus is also the angel of death), and Asrafil (propulsion, and also the angel of blades, and quite nasty).
The main characters who find themselves being manipulated by the angels are Perceval and Rien, and also Gavin the cockatrice mentioned above, and these form a wonderful quest group that gradually gains people as it rolls along, as quest groups usually do. This is the most “fantasy”-like element of the book; everything else is science-fictional fantasy, or perhaps fantastical science-fiction.
Dust is not an incredibly long book, but the concepts and world-building that it covers are enormous, as the length of this article in comparison to other Kindle-licious reviews attests to. I found the book fun but also disorientating—which can be fun if you go with the flow. Of course, I also am very fond of Brasyl, though Dust is nowhere near as difficult a read.
Dust is part of the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy; the next book is Chill.