My first problem with Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear is that although I read and enjoyed it, I just had to look up the title before I could review it.
My second problem is that it has a subtitle: A White Space Novel. As an SF reader of long standing, this gives me the heebs, because (a) I don’t necessarily want to embark on reading a series and (b) I don’t know enough to know whether I’m starting at the beginning or somewhere in the middle. I’ve always known Elizabeth Bear as a science fiction writer, but I’ve only read shorter fiction anthologised by the late Gardner Dozois in his annual anthologies. A quick glance at Ms Bear’s Wikipedia entry causes a quick gulp because she is of course prolific.
Anyway, apparently, she’s been away from science fiction for seven years, writing a fantasy series, but Ancestral Night marks a return to the genre. Given that it took me six years to write one book, seven years away doesn’t seem like that long to me. Needless to say, Ms Bear published at least a novel a year in that period.
Published in 2019, Ancestral Night is the first (phew!) in a series set in a universe in which faster than light (FTL) travel is possible by bending and warping space and creating a kind of pocket universe for a ship to travel in. Yes, like Star Trek’s warp drive, except what happens if an ancient alien artefact gets stuck in the bubble?
The universe is vast, and old, and civilisations have risen and fallen many times. The deep background to this is a long-forgotten race of aliens who have left valuable technologies behind. Salvage crews compete with each other to get possession of these artefacts. And that’s how the story begins: our plucky crew encounters a vast ship trapped in white space and gets much more than they bargained for.
There are beats here that SF readers will recognise. The unknown ancient aliens are like Larry Niven’s ‘Slavers’, who left behind stasis boxes containing valuable technologies, like loot crates in space. The intrepid crew of the salvage vessel, with its friendly and quirky AI personality, will remind you of the more recent Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, while the overarching civilisation that represents the rule of law will remind you of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series. Meanwhile, the vast derelict spaceship (my favourite SF trope) will remind you of the greatest derelict ship story ever written: Ship of Fools/Unto Leviathan by Richard Paul Russo.
So it’s a proper science fiction mashup, a classic space opera, involving vast distances and Big Dumb Objects, FTL travel, artificial gravity, nanotechnology, human relationships, space pirates, chips in brains, insurrection, and Something Mysterious Nobody Has Ever Encountered Before. Enjoyable stuff. A bit too much of the modern trend for touchy feeliness when you’re reading for the plot, but nothing insurmountable.