Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

The last thing I expect from the final book in a trilogy is for it to throw up major questions about the characters we have come to, if not love, like and admire over the course of two books. But that’s exactly what Bear does in Grail. It’s a remarkable move that I admit makes a fitting end to a remarkable series. As with Chill, there is no way of telling from the front cover that this is part of a series, although the blurb mentions that it brings Bear’s space opera “to a triumphant conclusion.” Unlike Chill, though, this book probably would make a bit more sense by itself.

As the third in the series, this review contains some spoilers for the first two books (Dust and Chill).

Grail opens not on the great generation ship but on a planet, with a completely new set of characters. At first I thought this was going to be the descendants – or perhaps even the ancestors – of our friends on the Jacob’s Ladder. Turns out that no, these people are human colonists who have been on this planet for generations, the descendants of the people who had initially populated Jacob’s Ladder.

You may think you can see where this is probably going. I certainly wondered if this was going to turn into an Us vs Them scenario, and whether it would lead to violence. However, I seriously underestimated Bear – always a bad idea. The inhabitants of Fortune (the planet, which the Jacob’s Ladder crew have jokingly named Grail as they approach) have not been static in their own development. They haven’t gone down the same route as Perceval and co, though. Rather, they have made explicit moves away from the religious zealotry that originally drove the generation ship into space. And they have done this via psychological and, I think, chemical means. Isolating the area of the brain leading to ‘sociopathic’ tendencies and… minimising them.

Bear does not set up a good/bad dichotomy here. From Fortune’s perspective – and especially through the eyes of Danilaw, currently in charge and the one who ends up interacting most with Perceval etc – those on board the ship are totally, utterly, unregenerate barbarians of the worst kind… and the reader gets to see just how weird some things about them are, from the outside. Things the reader has come to accept as normal, over the last two books, because that’s what you do when you suspend disbelief. To have that acceptance thrown back into my face was, frankly, shocking. I can’t imagine what it would be like now to re-read the series, with this new perspective thrust upon me at the end. At the same time, though, it’s not like Danilaw et al are that normal and comfortable. I almost found them harder to accept because at least on the Jacob’s Ladder, I know they’ve been deliberately making evolutionary choices, they’ve been in space for centuries, and weird semi-cyborg things of course happen out there in that context. Fortune’s inhabitants do not have that excuse. Their psychological and neurological changes happened initially on Earth itself, in response to perceived threats from religious and political zealots. I was reminded uncomfortably of ideas from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 – not that Bear is riffing off them, but having choice removed from people, particularly choice that is dear to my heart? Squirm-y making.

The plot is appropriately twisty and intriguing, as befits the conclusion to this series. The characters continue to be intriguing, attractive and repellant almost at the same time. We finally get a better understanding of the ship itself, thanks to the outsider perspective, which is a nice culmination of the gradual reveal from the first two books.

All in all a very clever conclusion to a very clever series.

One response

  1. […] a habitable world. I love a good generation ship story: Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series was awesome, I enjoyed much of Beth Revis‘ Across the Universe stories (although the […]

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