Providence is an English language science fiction short novel in the thriller and survival horror subgenres by Australian author Max Barry, published on 31 March 2020.
The plot follows the four-member crew of the artificially intelligent wartime spaceship Providence as they pursue an aggressive extermination campaign against an openly hostile alien race called Salamanders. The Salamanders first invaded the Solar System seven years prior to the plot, initiating an attempted immediate eradication of all humans they encountered, during their very first contact; they are explicitly demonstrated to be an existential threat with intentions to terraform Earth, and at the start of the plot, no successful communication has been achieved between humans and Salamanders, that might be used to attempt peace negotiations. Salamanders have the ability to expel "quark-gluon slugs" from their mouths, creating localised extreme gravity distortions which are described in plot as behaving like miniature black holes, capable of depressurising spacecraft and imploding human bodies in the vicinity.
The story rotates through the points of view of the four crew members, each of whom has unique insights, prejudices, and misunderstandings about the others, and each of whom has been led by military command to believe they alone are the most important and necessary member of the crew. Gilly, an engineer with what is strongly implied to be an autism spectrum disorder, is mainly preoccupied with supervising the ship's AI and "repairing" the ship, even though the ship has "service crabs," small robots which allow the ship to repair itself without human assistance. The ship's targeting computer does not actually require a human operator, so Anders, a fighter pilot and weapons specialist, strongly implied to have ADHD, attempts to alleviate his understimulation by coercing his crewmates into playing violent hide and seek games on the ship, relying on the medical bay to be able to bring them back from the brink of death when the games go too far. Jackson, the commanding officer and lone survivor of the Salamanders' first major campaign against a human space station, is explicitly stated to have PTSD from those events, and she is the only member of the crew who openly distrusts the ship's AI, due to a failure in AI judgment being what had allowed the previous attack to happen unopposed. Beanfield, the officer in charge of maintaining morale and balancing the crew's complicated interpersonal dynamics and mental health issues, as well as documenting day-to-day life on Providence to maintain good publicity on Earth, secretly harbours a nearly religious attitude toward the ship's AI, resulting in her forming a closer subjective sense of emotional connection with the AI and with her social media followers back on Earth than with the other humans on board.
Some of the themes of this book are rather direct and on-the-nose; the human temptation to perceive inhuman things as thinking the way humans think, and feeling the way humans feel, is routinely shown to be a mistake, but only insofar as the things being anthropomorphised are actually inhuman. A reasonable argument is made that anything crafted by human hands and fed data processed through human intellects, becomes itself an extension of humanity, including being subject to uniquely human errors in judgment, and not necessarily so "artificial" as the protagonists believe. Ideas like mercy, fairness, and negotiating peace only make sense to life forms which place a value on individual members of their species, but this does not mean that the individual members will not attempt to preserve their own lives by any means available, including imitation of the social behaviours of individualistic humans. These alien perspectives are compared and contrasted with how alien the four human crew are to each other due to their drastically differing values, experiences, and psychology.
Providence is a short and fast-paced read, a matter of a few hours from start to finish, and plenty of fun, though it is worlds away from qualifying as a classic or masterpiece of the genre; I regard it more as a pleasantly chilling "snack" to enjoy between other similar works, and the unexpectedly providential and uplifting ending left me tickled and pleased, after how tense the rest of the plot had been. I can gladly recommend this book to anyone who greatly enjoyed Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein; that is definitely what it most reminded me of, in theme and atmosphere as well as the mental frames of the four protagonists. I was also strongly reminded of Blindsight by Peter Watts, specifically regarding how the human characters relate to intelligences which are altogether inhuman, but also in the creeping dread and mental deterioration expressed by the characters, in their (usually mistaken) efforts to anthropomorphise both hostile aliens and the ship's AI, while simultaneously failing to understand their own human crewmates very well at all.
For a far more "hopepunk" and less "grimdark" sci-fi short novel, also focusing on a ship with exactly four crew, I recommend To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers.
Iron Noder 2020, 17/30