Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Providence by Max Barry. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Providence by Max Barry is one-part Ender’s Game and one-part 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a pinch of Starship Troopers thrown in for taste. This is the kind of book I rejoice in because it tricked me into contemplating modern-day philosophy within this rollercoaster of a plot.
On the surface, this is a sci-fi adventure story about a small crew of four as they traverse across the galaxy, preparing to engage in a series of battles with an alien race, called Salamanders, we’ve found ourselves in a years-long war with. The crew is small because the series of ship they’re on, called the Providence fleet, is almost completely powered by AI. It tracks the enemy and analyzes fight patterns, readjusts its approach when it comes to the next battle, and implements changes to continually improve its tactics. The people on board act more as human faces for the news channels back home rather than the soldiers they want to be—nothing more than a media stunt. After numerous successful battles, they’re tasked with going into a communication dead zone—where talking with Earth is impossible—in search of the Salamanders’ main hive. Will they come out heroes? Or disappear into the vacuum of space with barely a whisper left behind?
From the start, Providence gets right into the story, weaving in mystery after mystery. I loved that there isn’t one single twist we’re chasing throughout this sci-fi thriller—instead, there are a series of small moments of duplicity that create an effect that constantly keeps us on our toes. Because of the ship’s AI and the government’s lack of transparency, this is an ominous and stressful story in the best ways possible. At times, we can’t even decide who the antagonist is between the aliens, our government, the ship, mankind, ourselves, or, hell, maybe no one.
Providence is the kind of book I rejoice in because it tricked me into contemplating modern-day philosophy within this rollercoaster of a plot.
Every character in Providence is enacting some level of revenge, and that includes the Salamanders. It creates a cycle of vengeance that will inevitably end in the destruction of everything. In the opening chapter, when humans first make contact with the Salamanders, they’re brutally murdered. This scene is told in the retrospective and raises significant questions: Were these humans killed because the aliens felt threatened and acted in self-defense? Or are the Salamanders really a species of murderous monsters? We can’t really know, but it’s blurry enough for us to call it into question—meaning, the entire war we follow is based on an assumption. The revenge that every character is chasing is based on a hollow moment of confusion, and I can’t help but feel like that’s how our world is more or less built today. It doesn’t have to be a future intergalactic war to know our presumptions could be the end of us.
Here’s what is so compelling about Providence: it’s a popcorn blockbuster that constantly weaves its story back onto itself, which then makes us question where we fit into the universe. It’s a fun space book that threw me into a minor existential crisis! Are we cogs in the machine with no real worth? Or is our worth found in the greater good, where we sacrifice one life for the continuation of our whole species? Or are we the individuals we’ve been raised to believe?
In the end, Providence doesn’t explicitly answer these questions, but I think that’s kind of the point. We’re all of those things and none of those things. What we get out of life is what we put into it—and while that might be frustrating, we should also remember that existing is frustrating. All we can do is let go of the little control we have and hope for the best.