I’ve just finished reading Providence by Max Barry, and it has quickly become one of my favorite books of the year. I previously read Jennifer Government and Lexicon (after spending way too much time and emotional energy on the old NationStates game as a kid… which is apparently still around!) and thoroughly enjoyed them, but Providence is my favorite so far.
No spoilers, but a couple things strike me about the book. First, in terms of similarity to other authors, it reads to me like Becky Chambers meets Orson Scott Card. Like Card, it touches on some of the more philosophical elements of science fiction, like the morality of such a war—updated for a modern audience where social media and propaganda are such prominent issues (which, granted, Card touched on too, but Barry touches on these with the benefit of actually knowing what social media is going to look like in 2020 rather than just being surprisingly prescient like Card). But like Chambers, the book is surprisingly tender in its depiction of the individual characters. It benefits from focusing on a crew of only four to be able to really explore each of them individually.
Second, it touches on some interesting issues clearly relevant to my own interests. Throughout the book, the trustworthiness and explainability of AI come up a lot, even bordering on questions like the definition of life and consciousness. It sort of throws out thoughtpieces* to explore certain such questions in depth, like the ship making decisions it can’t explain and its crew attempting to interpret them. Its treatment of sending media home for public consumption and the role of that media in the war effort is handled really interestingly as well. But what put it over the top for me is the undercurrent of questions about human-AI interaction that come up a lot; one of the pivotal developments connects to how AI and humans communicate with one another, and the treatment of the question is impressively sophisticated.
So, highly recommended for fans of science fiction, those interested in human-AI interaction, or anyone who just wants to read a good book.
* – thoughtpiece. noun. a plot development specifically set up to explore some philosophical, psychological, ethical, etc. dilemma. Similar to how movies and video games often set up sequences specifically to explore certain settings or situations. See: Becky Chambers’s Monk and Robot duology.