Raffles Reads: Providence

By Neo Xin Yuan (21A01D)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Providence is wiser than you, and you may be confident it has suited all things better to your eternal good than you could do had you been left to your own option.

So begins Max Barry’s latest sci-fi novel Providence. The above quote, taken from John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, is truly an apt epigraph, effectively encapsulating the overarching theme of the similarly named Providence.

Providence is an interesting choice of title. Having studied related English Renaissance poems, H2 Literature students would be all too familiar with the idea of Providence. In theology, Providence is God, or a force which is believed by some people to arrange the things that happen to us. In the novel Providence, it’s a concept Barry integrates cleverly into the realm of science fiction, probing us to approach technology from a fresh perspective.  

Max Barry is no stranger to sci-fi. For those unfamiliar with Barry’s work, the acclaimed author is known for his bestseller Lexicon, a heart-pounding thriller with a sci-fi twist. Science fiction is known and loved for its thrilling modernity—how seemingly impossible notions can become reality overnight, integrating themselves seamlessly into our daily lives until we don’t know what’s impossible and what has already been done. “Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact,” quips a quote from popular sci-fi novel Warcross, and this rings especially true in Providence. In the same way that the characters are catapulted miles away from Earth and into space, the reality of fearsome, over-intelligent artificial intelligence (AI) spaceships might seem far, far away, or even utterly ludicrous to us. 

But that’s not quite true—there are little facets of this fictional world that hit too close to home, be it the fear that AI will eventually surpass us and overcome the need for human intervention, or the ‘feeds’ (think futuristic Instagram) that one of the main characters, Talia, uses to obsessively construct the perfect image of herself and the war. I can certainly imagine the events of Providence taking place in the not-so-far future, maybe half a decade down the road, as humans become more and more intelligent. They innovate, invent and create more and more ingenious technologies—until they realise they have been rendered unnecessary by their own creations. 

The novel starts off with a gut-wrenching scene in the ever-compelling second person narrative voice, plunging you right into the heart of the world and the root of the story. Set seven years after the same scene that sparked the ongoing war, the four stars of the show—Gilly, Talia, Anders and Jackson—are ready for takeoff. They all know what has brought them here: salamanders. Salamanders are bulky alien creatures with six limbs and translucent resin covering their faces. Seven years ago, four people were on a ship in space when they discovered these strange creatures for the first time. 

It wasn’t long before the salamanders killed every person on board.

“The salamanders don’t speak. They don’t try to communicate. They just kill him. You don’t know why. There are a lot of theories. Some people say it wasn’t their fault. We wandered into their territory and they defended it. They’re mindless animals, unaware of what they’re doing. Something Maladanto did registered to them as a threat. There are a lot of opinions. All you know is that when the video finally, mercifully stops, you want to kill salamanders, as many as you can.”

The four characters have been carefully selected and trained to board one of the most effective salamander-killers Man has ever created—a Providence, a ship equipped with the most advanced AI technology. When it comes to battling salamanders, it has the most astute judgement, making decisions better and faster than any human ever could in the heat of battle. Hence the title Providence, where the ship’s AI fights for them.

The team consists of Gilly, the Intel Officer, Talia, the Life Officer, Anders, the Weapons Officer and Jackson, the Command Officer. They each oversee different aspects of the ship, much like the pilots in Voltron: Legendary Defender. But it soon becomes clear to us that they are simply pawns in a game larger than themselves—the Providence is king, and they are just carefully constructed media personalities for the common people to consume. The media creates the façade that humans are the heroes, the ones doing the fighting, when in reality, the ship does everything for them.

It’s for this reason that the characters stand out the most in Providence. The book is told from all four characters’ perspectives, which makes for interesting disparities between one character’s perception of the ship and another’s, and what the characters think of one another. In a cramped, narrow ship sailing in uncharted outer space where the only company they have is each other (and the ship), the relationships between the four characters are developed thoroughly and the characters themselves are well fleshed-out, with compelling backstories and unique motivations that are sure to make readers feel for them.

We start off with Gilly, or Gilligan, the Intel Officer. He’s your typical “nerdy tech guy”, hyper-fixated on logic and technical details, making him perfect for managing the engineering aspects of the ship—or at least, that’s our first impression of him. He’s very by-the-book, and a firm believer and preacher of the superiority of the ship’s decisions:

“Don’t question the ship. It’s smarter than you are.” 

At the start of the book, he’s constantly challenging his mind with puzzles, trying to solve the ever-persistent “valve problem” on the ship, until he discovers, with the help of Anders, that it was just a mental stimulation exercise constructed by Talia. The ship doesn’t need his help; it can solve its own problems far more efficiently than he ever could.

He wanted this meeting to end. He wanted to lock himself in his cabin and not come out again. He’d thought he was someone, doing something.

Over the course of Providence, Gilly undergoes startling character development in the face of actual, chilling danger that crops up later in the novel, prompting us to understand that in the rarest of situations when seemingly infallible technology fails and leaves us stranded, it is our sheer, raw humanity that shines through.

Next up is Talia Beanfield, the Life Officer. Described by Gilly as an “effortlessly charming social butterfly”, she certainly fits the bill with her easygoing, friendly demeanour and her polished social media profile. But there’s more to her than the shiny media personality that the public eats up with awe and admiration—Talia is arguably the most important crew member out of the four, and the most busy too: besides constructing and managing the image of the war for the public, she is also responsible for managing the emotional and mental states of her fellow crew members, ensuring that they’re at their best and that they work together effectively as a team. And she’s extremely good at that.

Being on the ship was performing all the time. It was roleplays around the clock. There was no conversation where she wasn’t noting tone and word choice and body language. That joke from Anders, how much of that was serious? Gilly’s gaze is drifting, does he need more mental stimulation? 

What I liked most about Talia—and what made her my favourite out of the four—was her sensitivity to emotions and how she views everything through the lens of emotions, even the ship. In that way, she is a foil to Gilly. One believes that the ship is merely a lifeless, coded software, cold and emotionless, while the other wants to believe that there is something more to the ship. The dreamy manner in which Talia attaches a tender humanity to the ship makes for a touching but utterly heartbreaking moment near the end of the book. 

One downside is the dissatisfying lack of character growth for Talia. She does not play a big part in the climax of the book, where most of the danger and adventure happens for the other three characters. Nevertheless, she is no doubt a memorable character, and Providence wouldn’t have been the same without her role in the story.

The Weapons Officer, Anders, is what one would call a ‘freeloader’. He’s mischievous, doesn’t show up when needed, and puts himself and the others in constant danger. He comes across as the most unmotivated member of the crew, for sure. But as the story progresses and we learn more about him, it becomes clear that he is anything but. 

I personally enjoyed his character. Although I disliked him at first for his careless irresponsibility, my expectations were swiftly subverted as he underwent an impressive transformation in attitude as the story progressed. Though I did not feel for him as much as I did for Jackson, the captain, he played a very important part in the novel. Gilly describes him as a “tortured dreamboat”—an interesting description for an interesting character that I definitely enjoyed.  

Last but certainly not least, we have Jolene Jackson, the Command Officer and the leader of the squad. The epitome of strictness, she’s always referred to as ‘Jackson’ when the narrative is told from the other members’ points of view—except for Talia, who obstinately calls her by her first name, Jolene, in her head. Jackson and Talia’s relationship was one of my favourite things in the book as their principles are very different—one believes in the importance of emotion, while one (seemingly) doesn’t. It was heartwarming to witness their tentative collaboration shift into a more intimate friendship, showing that Jackson—like Gilly, Anders and Talia—is more than she seems on the surface. In the later parts of Providence, we learn about her backstory, her fears, her hopes and the sacrifices she’s made to be standing on this ship as captain. 

The characters are what made Providence truly shine—without them, I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it as much, considering the blandness of the plot and lack of worldbuilding in this dystopian universe. It’s just space and ship throughout the entire book, with little details about the world and its systems. Even within outer space itself, the concept of the Violet Zone (VZ) was obscure and not well-developed, despite the fact that most of Providence takes place in the VZ, which is said to be an area devoid of beacons and relays, where ships cannot sync (connect to the Internet) at all. Novel technologies like the ‘medbag’ that instantly takes care of any medical problems and the ‘crabs’ that automatically pop up to fix the ship whenever needed were intriguing, but otherwise relatively unremarkable and unoriginal.

The story is told mostly through dialogue, which is probably to reinforce the idea that the ship does most of the action while the characters just talk and pretend they’re the ones killing salamanders, but nonetheless, without exciting and vivid descriptions typical of sci-fi and fantasy novels, it falls flat. The silver lining is that it’s a breath of fresh air from the purple prose many authors use, which can be overbearing at times.

Lastly, the plot was carefully paced and easily digestible, but the storyline lacked originality and excitement for the first half of the book. Nevertheless, it is a thoughtful book worth a thoughtful read. I loved the themes of Providence: the inevitable superiority of technology, the inherent vulnerability of humanity, and how outsiders are always misunderstood by us. In Providence, no entity is what it seems. Half the journey is realising that as beings living in the same universe, under the same stars, we are all more similar than we are different.

"Raffles Reads: Providence", 5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings.

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