Review: Providence by Max Barry

Review: Providence by Max Barry

It has been a month since I finished reading Providence by Max Barry, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. On the surface, it’s a relatively simple story that will take you back to the good ol’ days of Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, but it also throws in so many modern writing tricks that it feels like something completely new. The story moves fast, skipping past the extraneous to get to what people really want to see: big ships firing big guns.

Warp Speed Ahead

I don’t remember how I learned about Providence, but I think it was in one of Amazon’s Daily Kindle Deals emails. I recognized the name from one of his other books, Jennifer Government, which I thought had a great premise but that I just couldn’t get into. Providence has a simpler premise: a distant alien enemy needs to be destroyed, and the world is going to throw its combined resources against it (because that worked so well against COVID). The result is a fleet of starships that run pretty much on their own thanks to advanced (and somewhat nebulous) AI. Barry winds up this premise, drops it on the floor, and watches it go.

I couldn’t stop reading once I started. Much like Sara Gran’s Come Closer, this story grabbed me and didn’t let go until the final note by the author at the end of the book. A lot of it has to do with what Barry chooses to leave out, most of which can be categorized as “not conflict.” Some authors, including yours truly, often take a winding path from point A to point B. This book doesn’t do that, so once you get started, you find yourself dragged along to the epic, made-for-Hollywood conclusion.

When it comes to editing, it feels like Providence has been pared down to the bare essentials. It puts the action front and center and minimizes the time between.

What I Liked

Sometimes, I miss the old days when I read a story just for the story itself. These days, I can’t help but pick out the little things authors do to make their books more interesting. Here are some of the things I saw Barry doing, that I will now shamelessly copy in my books:

  • POV-hopping chapters – One of the reasons I write multi-POV is because it allows you to throw a veil over the inner thoughts of a main character when its dramatically appropriate. It seemed like every time I wanted to know what a character in Providence was thinking, the author switched POVs.
  • Dwindling dialogue tags – I came away with the sense that Barry didn’t use any dialogue tags, but that’s not true. What I think happened is that as the book progressed, and to show how quickly things were moving, he simply began to drop them. The latter half of the book is full of passages of just alternating lines of dialogue. No tags, no narration–just rapid fire speech.
  • Starship Troopers – As I mentioned before, reading about big ships firing big guns was right up my alley. Barry talks about giving the reader what they want at the end of the book, and he pulled it off well.
  • Ender’s Game – I enjoyed the mystery around the bugs: where they came from, how they reproduced, and what they wanted.
  • The Climax – The brightest spot in this book is the moment when all seems lost for one of the characters. I had no idea how they were going to overcome their situation, and then it happened. I saw the scene exactly how I would expect it to appear in a movie, complete with a triumphant swell of music.

What I Didn’t Like as Much

Providence, while a fine story totally worth your time, doesn’t break much new ground in terms of premise. Much of it seems like an homage to other Science Fiction books, right down to the characters named Anders and Beanfield. Here are some things I didn’t find quite as engaging:

  • It Feels Short – When you’re hopping from one battle to the next and trying to fill in those gaps, you can either pare down or go full stream of consciousness. Barry spares the reader from unrelated side plots and focuses only on the things that directly affect the ship. The meat of the story is there… there’s just not a lot of it.
  • 2nd Person POV – This was a strange choice to me, especially for a prologue. Someone picking up the book might be turned off by their involuntary inclusion in the story and wouldn’t keep reading (which would be a damn shame). I know the author needed a way to describe the first encounter, but this felt like a jarring way to do it. Maybe the discomfort was the point?
  • Leaving the Ship – Late in the book, the characters visit a planet. For some reason, once they left the ship, I felt my interest wane. If anything, the ship itself is a main character, and I didn’t like seeing it being pushed to the background.

Damage Report

Providence is an efficient novel that is so worth your time that I can’t believe you haven’t given up on this blog post and gone to read it yet. It took me less than 24 hours to go from cover to cover, and regardless of where this book lands on the hierarchical list of “good science fiction,” it’s no doubt engaging and a fun read.

Climb aboard and strap in. It’s a ride you won’t soon forget.

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