Elizabeth Bear is a master of disguise. If you’ve spent any time with her enormous back catalog, you know that the only thing you can expect from her is to be surprised and delighted by how different each new book is from the one that preceded it. Since winning the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, she has published dozens of novels and even more short stories, jumping between genres and styles with apparent ease. Certainly not just any writer can publish one of the best epic fantasy series of the past decade (The Eternal Sky trilogy and its ongoing pseudo-sequel series, which began with The Stone in the Skull), take a pitstop in steampunk for a book or two, and then follow up with a big, bold science fiction saga poised to fill the void left by the James S.A. Corey’s soon-to-conclude series The Expanse.
Bear’s latest, the chunky space opera Ancestral Night, does just that. It travels familiar trade routes, but does so with aplomb, effortlessly separating itself from the crowd of new books in a resurgent subgenre.
Haimey Dz is a salvager. Alongside her sentient ship’s AI, Singer, and her long-time business partner Connla, she travels the edges of the Milky Way recovering lost and derelict vessels. It makes for a scrappy living, but it also keeps her far ahead of her past. When the crew explores a promising find—an ancient alien ship floating in a dark corner of the galaxy—Haimey investigates, and is infected with a mysterious, and strangely useful, parasite that grants her the ability to see the underlying structure of the universe. Unfortunately, it also makes the crew a target. Suddenly, they find themselves on the run, fleeing an aggressive band of space pirates able to track their ship through white space (a clever take on FTL), and the Synarche government itself.
Told from Haimey’s first-person point of view, Ancestral Night is bursting with character. Haimey is at once hilarious and principled by her own ethics, and makes for a richly complex narrator. She’s easy to root for, but more than that, her past experiences—her prejudices, dreams, and history—lend color to the narrative as it explodes around her. She can be reserved and aloof, too comfortable with her small crew and in the confines of her tiny salvaging ship, but she also connects deeply with the people she cares for, turning a light toward facets of their personalities that might otherwise remain hidden.
Ancestral Night is chock full of great worldbuilding, supported by thematic explorations of politics, humanity, society, and individualism. Readers familiar with space opera will recognize the far-future web of intermingling galactic species, and the concept of an overall governing body connecting them—here, the Synarche—all is certainly not new, but Bear weaves together these disparate elements (Haimey’s antipathy to drugs and body mods, the Synarche’s underpinnings and their affects on the individualism of AIs, the logistical implications of species from planets with different atmospheres and gravities cohabiting) in ways that make them feel fresh. Rather than seeming like a jumble of SFnal ideas, the universe builds upon itself in believable ways.
As it does in all of her work, Bear’s prose does double-duty, using exposition to worldbuild, inject humor, shape the characters, and establish the monumental stakes. One of my favorite early passages manages to be informative, interesting, and funny all at once:
I looked down along the distorted Sagittarius Arm of the great barred spiral that sprawled across the entirety of our southern horizon.
Yes, space doesn’t have directions, exactly, but let’s be honest here: prepositions and directions are so much easier to use than made-up words, and it’s not like the first object somebody called a phone involved a cochlear nanoplant and a nanoskin graft with a touch screen on it, either. So those of us who work here just pretend we’re nice and know better, and commend the nitpickers to the same hell as people who hold strong and condescending opinions about the plural of the word octopus. (Ch. 2)
This is an example of Bear’s no-apologies take on space opera: as the author, she doesn’t apologize for choosing when to stick to strict science, and when to hand-wave in favor of a better story. The balance between the expected scientific density of space opera and the approachable, easy-to-read voice means Ancestral Night will connect with all sorts of readers.
The novel presents a far-future vision of humanity that is diverse and unshackled by modern prejudices and social limitations. Haimey lives at a time when humans (and most sentient species, of which there are many in the the Synarche) are able to tune their emotions and physiology with drugs, controlling their behavior and proclivities at will. There’s obvious room for abuse, but Bear also explores the challenges and benefits of allowing people to feel or be anything they want. As a child, Haimey lived within an all-woman clade whose citizens were tuned to an almost hive-mind like dependance on one another. The present-day conflicts—both internal and external—that arise throughout the novel due to her pushback against her upbringing are both riveting and compelling. Nestled deep in the narrative’s core—permeating all of its worldbuilding, conflicts, and themes—is an exploration of free will and sentience.
Ancestral Night‘s tropes are the basic building blocks of genre—galaxy-spanning mysteries, pirates and rogues, long-lost alien tech, hyperspace travel, harrowing space combat—but Bear deploys them with expert precision. Imagine James S.A. Corey at his snarkiest, plus the bold sci-fi invention of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, topped off with the rich characterization of Lois McMaster Bujold. The result is both familiar and wholly unique, managing a precarious balance between huge SFnal ideas—just wait until you find out about the Ativahika, an alien species whose abilities and appearance will boggle your mind—and an imminently approachable style, thanks to Haimey’s roguish narrative voice.
Bear’s first sci-fi novel in more than a decade has everything going for it: big space battles, thrilling action, a scrappy crew, and huge mysteries with galaxy-wide implications. Ancestral Night is space opera at its best and boldest, making you think hard even as it gets your blood pumping and your imagination flowing.