Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

“I can’t some inside,” I told Singer. “There’s something in me.” And those were the hardest words I ever had to say. Harder than telling my clademothers that their utopia was my hell, and I’d done that in a packet rather than to their faces. I waited, eyes closed, the fear sweat rolling down my face and between my shoulders in cold snail trails.

“Nonsense,” he said. “You can and will.”

“This is the setup to a space thriller,” I said. Singer tched. “Right about now the audience is screaming, ‘Don’t open the hatch! Don’t let her in! It will kill you all!’ into their VR rigs.”

My first introduction to Elizabeth Bear was on the fantasy side with The Stone in the Skull, which I loved. I came in with high expectations for both prose and character development, and I’m pleased to say that Ancestral Night lived up to all my hopes on both counts! Where The Stone in the Skull had multiple points of view and broad-spanning political themes, Ancestral Night keeps things closer to home by following only one character: a traumatized young engineer named Haimey, who is part of the crew on a space salvage rig with a shipmind AI called Singer, a rather unfairly good-looking pilot, and two absolutely delightful cats named Mephistopheles and Bushyasta. 

The team has been tasked with a standard salvage operation: find a lost ship, bring it back in to the core. Said ship is a bit further out from the core than the team is used to being, and things start to go south early on when a second ship manages to brush up against the white space bubble they use to trick space into allowing faster-than-light travel. This is incredibly dangerous, and had they overlapped even a bit more both ships very likely would have been destroyed. Once they arrive at the site, they find not only the salvage ship they had been seeking out… but also the corpse of an Ativahika, a giant space-dwelling creature that’s somewhat draconic in appearance. The ship itself has several major inconsistencies, including technology leftover from a hyper-advanced ancient civilization. Soon, Haimey and her team find that they are in over their heads. 

I was a little surprised by the writing style when I began reading. Rather than the traditional, lyrical prose I had read from Bear previously, Ancestral Night is written in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. It’s conversational, often going off on slight tangents as Haimey describes her experiences. This serves to bring us closer to Haimey, allowing us to understand her motivations and thought processes on a personal level. 

Haimey’s character arc is multi-layered due to a complex past. She grew up in a clade, a group of people who are programmed and controlled to share a purpose and maintain full emotional synchronicity.  While it’s normal for humans to have a “fox” implanted to help them control their hormone levels and emotions, clades take this to an extreme. Haimey grew up without any conflict resolution skills, which made her ripe for abuse from bad faith actors who could manipulate that. Following a traumatic event in which exactly that occurred, she had to undergo a conditioning procedure that would allow her to function again as a normal human being. When some hard truths about her past are revealed, however, she finds that she’s not and has never been the person she really thought she was. She looks inside only to see a stranger, an automaton, staring back. 

If I’d been trying to do this without my fox, I think I would have been catatonic in the corner. Except I had done it without my fox. I had done all sorts of things without my fox, and while I’d been labile, weepy, angry, and generally deregulated with a head that was a no-fun place to live inside of, I had still done them. I had. Me. Or whoever I’d convinced myself to pretend to be while the person I’d been programmed to be was offline temporarily. Who the hell was I, anyway? You know, I had no idea.

And yet, it’s not even as simple as that. Even if she accepts that she has in some way been programmed (by herself and by others), she can’t simply brush that off as having erased her identity – not when she’s friends with an AI who does this constantly. Is Singer, their ship, any less a person because he was made rather than born? Haimey has never thought so, and saying that’s she’s less because of it by implication states that Singer is less… which is not an acceptable conclusion, not at all. 

Given that a mere existential crisis isn’t enough for Bear all on its own, it’s worth mentioning that all of this is taking place while she’s trapped on a rogue ship chock full of alien tech and in the control of a devastatingly attractive and morally grey pirate woman. 

I don’t go in for the sexy bad-girl thing anymore, but . . . damn. The Republican pirate was charismatic in a way that reached right past all the rightminding safeguards on my emotions and hormones and made me want to get to know her better and bond and be best friends with her forever. You can turn off sex, and you can turn off romantic love—but it’s really hard to turn off all the human emotional responses to a powerful individual without also turning off your humanity.

The one aspect of this book that didn’t work quite so well for me was the futuristic vernacular. Especially in the first third or so of the book, I found it to be a little opaque and inaccessible. Where I found myself immediately drawn in by RJ Barker’s use of fantasy-inspired language in The Bone Ships, I found myself a little but off by Bear’s. Fortunately, after an adjustment period, I found that it became easier and more natural to read. Realistically, even if I’d continued having trouble, I definitely would have powered through if only for the ridiculously adorably inclusion of cats in zero-g. 

As cats are wont to do, Mephistopheles and Bushyasta really do steal the show on a few occasions simply by being normal cats sans gravity. You can’t tell me it’s not stupidly cute to think of a cat floating around and snagging their claws into your sleeves to beg for a bite while you’re eating dinner, nor can you claim that you wouldn’t give them an ear-scritch or two. 

The cats, meanwhile, had discovered one thing about gravity that pleased them, which was that they could sleep on top of humans, who were cushiony and warm. It’s good to serve a purpose, even if you can’t figure out what the alien tech is for.

In addition to the in-depth character work and themes of personhood, Bear has put enormous amounts of detail and effort into her worldbuilding. Both subtly and overtly, she introduces us to the alien governmental structures, the body modifications used in zero-g, and the many species that make up the known universe. Although I again found the language to be challenging at times, I can’t fault the way she throws us into this strange new world. While concepts and social norms differ strongly from what the reader is familiar with, they’re accepted (for the most part) as a mundane fact by the cast. That is not, however, to say that they’re never questioned; in particular, Haimey is torn on laws governing AIs, even as she vehemently argues for practices that increase overall social wellbeing for both individuals and for groups.

Democracy was a low-tech hack for putting this into practice. We have better hacks now. I guess it was the best they could do at the time. But it strikes me as a bad way, in the long term, of assuring both communal well-being and individual freedom of choice and expression, as the groups and individuals with the most social dominance will wind up getting their way—and enforcing their norms on everyone. Might as well go back to everybody squabbling over resources and living in stone castles and hitting each other with spears.

Based on my experience with The Stone in the Skull and its sequel, The Red-Stained Wings, I’m certain that Bear’s next book in the White Space series will improve on these ideas and themes in every way. Bear is a slow burn that starts hot and only gets brighter as she goes. 

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6 thoughts on “Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Thanks for this! Very intrigued with this book’s premise; I know I’m looking forward to the second book, because Bear has said in an AMA that she’s going to have an homage to Dr. Prilicla (a flying insect-like alien from James White’s old Sector General series), one of my favorite characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was having fun getting to know the characters & enjoying the neat ideas for my Traveller roll-playing game campaign when the cats, Singer, the ship AI, and the pilot fellow,… I just put the book down. I’m sure others would like the book. I’m just kind of funny about certain twists involving characters.


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