The Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy

Most of the recent discussion of women science fiction writers has focused on women who have been forgotten. It is hard to say that about women who are currently writing SF, and yet they have been quite invisible in the discussion. Part of that, of course, is because the discussion has focused on the UK, where it is very hard for women SF writers to get a book deal. In the US it is somewhat easier, and one of the most prolific of our current generation of SF writers is Elizabeth Bear. She has just finished a trilogy set on a generation ship — a classic SF trope if ever there was one — and there are plenty of good SFnal questions posed in the books.

Somewhere out there I am sure someone is complaining that the books are no good because they are “really fantasy”. There are a number of reasons why readers might think that. To start with the society of the ship (the Jacob’s Ladder) is modeled on hereditary monarchy, with the Captain as King and the bridge crew drawn from his family (they are good at genetic engineering so incest is not a problem). Bear also uses a number of bits of mediaeval imagery: spacesuits are “armor”, and there are magic swords (fearsome tech that can cut through anything). She’s by no means the first SF writer to create this sort of society (anyone remember Patricia Kennealy?). But the thing I suspect most people won’t have noticed is that the first book, Dust [buy isbn=”9780553591071″], starts off as a Cinderella story.

Bear is well aware of the advantages of starting a story in media res. When we meet the crew of the Jacob’s Ladder their fine ship is lying crippled in orbit around a double star system. The Captain is dead, the ship’s AI has fractured into warring subroutines, and there is a civil war going on between the domains of Rule (the bridge) and Engine. Our heroine is Rien, an orphan serving girl living in Rule who dreams of being a princess; and of course she is one. In classic mediaeval tradition, she has been given to Rule as a hostage. Her mother is the Chief Engineer, but Rien, whose name means “nothing”, has been brought up in ignorance of her heritage. Then into her life comes Perceval, a knight errant from Engine, brought to Rule as a prisoner. Rien has no idea that Perceval was also a hostage, and that they share the same father.

The first book, is the tale of how the civil war for the control of the Jacob’s Ladder plays out, with Rien and Perceval taking the role of the younger generation who have to both learn the truth about their history and knock some sense into the heads of their feuding elders. Not forgetting, of course, knocking some sense into the programming of their AIs, who are as much characters as the crew. Dust, after whom the book is named, is actually the ship’s library, and therefore responsible for the whacky cultural conditioning the crew has undergone. Our heroes get through all of this on the strength of their love for each other, which will doubtless cause some readers to go “ewww”, not only because of the incest, but also the lesbian thing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Perceval is a girl?

One of the things Bear does in this book is have a lot of fun with gender. So we have a girl knight with a boy’s name playing the role of Prince Charming. Then there is Head, the major domo of Rule, who is a being without gender. Sie was apparently deliberately manufactured to be that way, presumably with the concept of the ideal eunuch in mind. In addition we have Mallory, who is physically hermaphrodite and has relationships with both male and female characters during the series, but never has any pronouns. And if that wasn’t enough, we discover that Perceval doesn’t believe in sex (doubtless to the disappointment of all those male readers looking forward to some hot girl-on-girl action).

The good thing about this approach is that it gives the reader a real feeling of human diversity. We have several different approaches to gender, and crucially none of them is held up as being any more valid than any other. Rien, understandably, has a bit of trouble with Perceval’s celibacy. At one point she even complains, “But you could get it fixed.” Perceval agrees that she could, “But then I would not be me.”

It may seem like this is just an exercise in Liberal sensitivity, but actually it is part of a much wider discussion of the ethics of bioengineering. Head is someone who has been made; Mallory and Perceval both have traits that could be “fixed”. These are issues that will become very important later in the series.

Book two, Chill [buy isbn=”9780553591088″], deals with the need to get the newly united Jacob’s Ladder moving again. This is given some urgency by the discovery that the stars the vessel is orbiting are unstable and could go nova at any minute. The new Captain needs to get her vessel underway very quickly, and of course there are bad guys making life difficult.

One of the other (now) standard SF tropes that Bear uses is the idea of minds as code. This is very much the case with the AIs, but it is also true of people as well. Humans can be uploaded. This means that both humans and AIs can be backed up, which makes them very difficult to kill. My major complaint about the series is that Bear over-uses this idea. It becomes rather like that tired comics trope where the super villains keep coming back despite having apparently died in earlier issues.

Bear does, however, also introduce new challenges in each book. In Chill the new bad guy is an alien, and we learn a lot more about how the crew of the Jacob’s Ladder came to be the way they are, and just how post-human that makes them. We are also introduced to a new human community on board the ship. The Edenists, known as “Go-Backs” to the crew, are a hardline sect who are opposed to bioengineering and want to turn the ship back to Earth. Here we see the bioethics themes starting to come to the fore, and Bear does her best to play fair in the philosophical debates, despite ultimately being on the side of her heroes.

Book Three, Grail [buy isbn=”9780553591095″], sees the Jacob’s Ladder finally find its way to a star system with an inhabitable planet. Unfortunately, while the ship was spending hundreds of years wrecked and having civil wars, mankind has got on with improving starship design; the planet is already colonized. These humans are superficially similar to us, but in some ways quite different. Like the crew, they have been working on bioengineering, but rather than allowing humanity to evolve, they have tried to perfect what they have. In particular they are all “rightminded” — they have had their brains edited so that they can no longer fall victim to destructive memes such as religion and Capitalism.

This is a bit of a problem, because the original builders of the Jacob’s Ladder were exactly the sort of people that rightminding was designed to eliminate. They were a fabulously wealthy fundamentalist sect called the New Evolutionists who, Mayflower-like, had set off into space to find a New World and the ultimate destiny of mankind. In the previous two volumes we have seen just what unpleasant people The Builders were (think Sheri Tepper villains), so Bear probably expects us to have a lot of sympathy with the colonists. I, however, recognized them for what they were, and I hated them from pretty much the first chapter.

A key moment comes when diplomatic relations are established between Jacob’s Ladder and the colony. Mallory, who has turned out to be quite a people person, is asked to handle the negotiations. The leader of the colonists, Danilaw, is surprised by what he meets:

This person — Mallory — was not what he has expected from what he knew of the transgendered … which was, to be true, mostly derived from popular period music

The colonists, then, have no transgender people amongst them. Nor does Earth. Transgender people died out long ago. Why? Because they have been “fixed”. Anything that the new rulers of Earth have deemed to be a flaw in human nature has been done away with. Contrast this with the crew of the Jacob’s Ladder, who have embraced diversity and rolled it forward into new modes of being. Once we see through the eyes of the colonists, it is very obvious that the crew are not remotely human anymore.

As you might expect, there is a lot more philosophical debate. This is real science fiction we have here, and the issues that Bear is addressing are very much current. We are starting to get to the point where we can legitimately talk about becoming post-human, and issues of bioethics are at the heart of all sorts of political debates from climate change through to genetic engineering and the galloping destruction of Earth’s biodiversity.

If you were expecting me to focus on the gender issues, well sorry, but there isn’t much to say because Bear does pretty much exactly what I would want. That is, she has a variety of differently gendered people amongst her cast of characters; and their genders are, for the most part, not plot devices or used in an argument about gender politics. I’m not representative of any of the types of trans people she uses, so I can’t really say whether they have been fairly portrayed or not. I’m guessing that the most likely complaint would be that Head is an obvious stereotype, but the way in which sie is presented makes it clear that a) sie was made that way as a joke, and b) that the joke is no longer an issue and everyone accepts hir as sie is. Valuing diversity is what the Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy is all about, and as a rather extreme form of human diversity myself I can’t complain about that.

8 thoughts on “The Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy

  1. The trilogy is quite wonderful and vastly underrated, I think. I’m especially fond of Tristen, who has lived long enough and been through enough trauma that he has some difficulty relating to his younger self (and thus to his legend), although no trouble remembering who and how he was. The age range is as well-done and varied as the gender identification, it seems to me. Rien is so believably young, and there’s plenty of middle ground.

    Thanks for a fine review.

  2. I also really enjoyed these books–very dense on the ethics and ideas front, with some great SFnal play going on, and of course the wide range of genders was lovely.

    I wish they had wider recognition; they certainly deserve it. (Well, Chill had one award nomination.)

      1. I was very impressed with Elizabeth Bear’s writing and comments at the Eurocon, so I bought the Kindle editions (on Ipad) of the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy on the way home and am enjoying them now. I’m Netherlands-based and bought them on so I hope that means they are also available to UK-based purchasers.

  3. I am so glad you liked them. I always worry after talking enthusiastically about books to people that they won’t hit the mark. But yes, I really love that different genders and orientations are just there and not an issue in these books.

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