I love that I've decided to do these book clubs this year, because I'm already reading stuff that I never would've picked up on my own otherwise. I've seen Elizabeth Bear's name floating around (I work in a book store) but I've never actually heard a lot about her or her books. Well, she was the January selection for the Women of Science Fiction book club being hosted at Dreams and Speculations. While I have some conflicting feelings regarding this book, I'd say my overall feeling towards it is, in the end, more favorable.
I'm no writer, but I know one of the biggest and most important rules of writing is "Show, don't tell." Not being a fan of info-dumps, I agree with this rule, but Bear really takes the "showing" to an extreme. She plunks her readers right in the middle of the action and doesn't really give us a minute to get our bearings. Little to no explanation is given for anything, and I found myself floundering at the beginning of the book to get a handle on what the hell was going on (I especially had trouble with the segments involving Dust and the "angels" of the ship -- those had me completely lost at first, and even still a little bit at the end.) This progressively got better as the story moved along, thank goodness, but it was really discouraging at first. While this kind of annoyed me, I also applaud Bear for not taking the info-dumping route, and letting me learn the workings of her world slowly. It was also more rewarding when I made sense of something. Now, the reason I might've been confused with a lot of the things going on is because I am not a connoisseur of science-fiction, especially "hard" science-fiction, which is definitely present here. Veterans of the genre might not have as much trouble as I did. Despite the confusing at first, the world-building was in the end very well done. It had a neat blending of religion with science that was really cool. The second plot line of the angels competing for control of the ship was really confusing at first (more so than the main plot), but it was worth it for the neat dichotomy of science and religion.
With that being said, that was another problem I had: when I read a book, I like to see it in my head like a movie. Depending on what I'm reading, I get frustrated when I can't imagine what's going on in my head, and I end up getting kind of lost in the prose, which is when I find myself having to re-read passages. I found this happened to me a lot while reading Dust. Again, because I'm not super knowledgeable on the sci-fi genre, a lot of the techno jargon that was being thrown around liberally had me baffled, and made some scenes hard to visualize when said techno jargon was integral to the action at hand.
Bear does a lot of interesting things with gender and sexuality in this novel (which, I hear, is not uncommon in her work.) If you're really sensitive to sexual taboos (this novel deals primarily with incest), than stay away from this book. The two main characters are half-sisters who are in love with one another, but Bear uses the science fiction elements of her world to make this issue a non-issue in the frame of her story (they're not the only incestuous couple in the story.) To be honest, while the lesbian-incest-romance really threw me off at first, once I got settled and a little more comfortable in Bear's world, it became a non-issue for me as well. Bear handles it all with a deft hand, and again, I have to applaud her; the woman obviously has skill. Gender is also dealt with in an unorthodox way, also with the conventions of the science found in her world. We have a character who is genderless (though s/he is a minor one) and a hermaphrodite. Experimenting and playing with gender views is not unheard of in science fiction, but this is my first encounter with it, and it was an element to the story that I appreciated.
I'm still having trouble discerning how I felt about the characters. I didn't dislike anyone in particular, but I also didn't feel any kind of connection to anyone either. Rien and Perceval (the half-sisters) are obviously well realized (though I've read better; this is more in relation to the rest of the cast), and I also found myself really enjoying Gavin's humor, but other than that, no one else really did anything for me. They seemed like they were just there to move the plot along, and at times, the names could've been interchanged and I don't think I would've noticed the difference.
As indicated above, this is the first book in a trilogy, which has since been concluded. Do I want to read the sequels? I kind of do. Now that I have a better handle on the world Bear has created, I think I would be able to immerse myself in the next two books a lot more easily than I did with this first installment. If I were to read the sequels though, I would really like to read this title against beforehand; I think I would understand A LOT more a second time around. However, because I have so many other titles I want to read at the moment, I don't think I'll be re-reading, or reading the next books in this series any time soon, but it isn't because I don't WANT to. A big part of me does, just to catch things I definitely missed the first time around.
Final Verdict: This is definitely not a book for beginners in science-fiction, unless you're really looking for a challenge. This book was most definitely challenging for me (to the point where I actually almost gave up at the beginning, but I pushed forward because it was a book club pick) but I'm glad I read the book the whole way through, because in the end, it was really gratifying. While I think the story suffered from slightly underdeveloped characters, it definitely makes up for it in the lush world that Bear has created, even if it takes awhile to get settled in said world because of the confusing narrative. The gender and sexuality themes brought up were a breath of fresh for me. though they might bother others who really don't like that kind of thing. With all this being said, I would recommend it this title, though not without hesitation. This isn't a book for everyone, though a book I think everyone who is a fan of sci-fi should try. If you're not a fan of the genre, you have been warned. Try it out if you're looking for something a little more challenging.