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BOOK REVIEW: Providence by Max Barry

| 15 April 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Providence by Max Barry

Hachette Australia
March 2020
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Science-Fiction / Thriller

75% Rocking


An inventive, speculative adventure and the intimate tale of four people facing their most desperate hour – alone, together, at the edge of the universe.

The video changed everything. Before that, we could believe that we were safe. Special. Chosen. We thought the universe was a twinkling ocean of opportunity, waiting to be explored.
Afterward, we knew better.

Seven years after first contact, Providence Five launches. It is an enormous and deadly warship, built to protect humanity from its greatest ever threat. On board is a crew of just four-tasked with monitoring the ship and reporting the war’s progress to a mesmerized global audience by way of social media.

But while pursuing the enemy across space, Gilly, Talia, Anders, and Jackson confront the unthinkable: their communications are cut, their ship decreasingly trustworthy and effective. To survive, they must win a fight that is suddenly and terrifyingly real.



The war with the aliens known as salamanders began seven years before our story, when a group of space-bound scientists came across them for the first time.

They’re scientists, remember. They went into space to study bacterial growth. Then they picked up a hint of controlled propulsion in a place it didn’t belong and there was no one else for millions of miles. They could have turned tail and run – they should have – but here they are. Side by side. With a cattle prod.

The scientists didn’t survive the encounter.

Maladanto’s body jerks. Fluid hits the wall behind him.
You know that salamanders are capable of spitting little quark-gluon slugs, which are essentially tiny black holes. They leave behind a trail of mangled matter, because what happens when that much gravity passes an inch from your heart and five feet from your toes is that different parts of your body experience monumentally different forces. The crew of Coral Beach doesn’t know this. They only see Maladanto’s body implode.

Seven years on, our main protagonists head off on the most recent Providence ship, a class of ships that are so entirely AI controlled that it’s a wonder our MCs need go into space at all, except to make sure the AI doesn’t stuff up.

We have Captain Jolene Jackson, space war veteran and only living survivor of one of the biggest casualties in the war with the Salamanders, prior to the creation of the Providence class warships.

Outside, in the real world, voyaging into the unknown and facing an unimaginable horror and surviving, that made her a hero. Not here. On base, people knew, even if they didn’t. They sensed something funky about a person who crawled back home, alive, after leaving thousands of bodies behind.

Weapons expert and emotionally damaged heartthrob, Paul Anders.

He had gone a little crazy in the last months before they shipped out. He had kept expecting someone to say, Wait, we’re sending Paul Anders? That’s a mistake. But no one did. No matter how much of an asshole he was, or how clear he made it that he was unsuited to the role, they remained intent on sending him out on a spacecraft—a spacecraft, for fuck’s sake—which was, it turned out, a hell of a lot smaller on the inside than it appeared from the exterior.

 expert, Isiah “Gilly” Gilligan, who feels more comfortable in the company of machines (and AIs) than people.

On the occasions Gilly hadn’t been able to avoid seeing his own press, he was always struck by how out of place he looked, like a fan who’d won a contest to meet celebrities. Jackson, the war hero; Anders, the tortured dreamboat; Beanfield, the effortlessly charming social butterfly . . . and Gilly, a permanently startled-looking AI guy who couldn’t find a good place to put his hands.

And Talia Beanfield, arguably the most personable of the lot, but maybe that comes down to her being the “Life” officer, which encompasses communication, videos for publicity, and smoothing out the rough edges between the other crew.

She sometimes browsed her own feed to admire the Talia it presented. Here: Talia taking you through her workout routine, bright and bubbly, glowing with health. Here: Hilariously trying to unravel the mystery of where the robot crabs went when they were finished doing something (how long was that chute??). Here: Waking with puffy eyes and matted hair (so vulnerable!), missing you all so much. This Talia was amazing. This Talia was an inspiration. It was no surprise to her that this Talia had three hundred million followers, because she would love to be this Talia, too.

The four are packed into a tin can (albeit an intelligent and very strong tin can that can repair any damage inflicted on it) and sent off into space to take on the scariest threat mankind has ever seen. At first things seem to go smoothly and the input of the humans on board isn’t required. But the aliens are learning, things are going wrong with the ship, and the humans grow ever more tense as pass the two year mark and find themselves outside of the range of human communication… and deep within VZ (or, the Violet Zone).

It was funny: They’d talked about VZ before and the joke was that Gilly would love it, since there would be no interviews, no one badgering him to record clips for his feed, just them and the ship. But six months was a long time to go dark. Even for him. No messages. No new books or movies.

You just know everything is going to go to plan, right? Because that’s how these stories always turn out…



The premise of the whole planet fighting a race of aliens is in no way new, and there are only a few main outcomes you can expect, but that doesn’t mean it can’t keep you guessing along the way. Tropes are usually rife within this set-up, and while Providence did have some tropey elements, it managed to keep this reviewer on her toes. And what can I say… the sci-fi nerd inside of me kinda loved the tropes we see here, anyway. 

However, it was in Barry’s handling of the characters that this story really shone. We form our snap judgements about each of them, aided by the dedicated third-person narratives of their shipmates, but then we get a look inside their head, inside their past and, most importantly, we get to see how they step up when the threat to their lives and the lives of their crew becomes real. 

Some space-based books can spend too much time on background, or too much time on the here and now (filled with lots of waiting around on the part of the MC), but Providence fond the perfect balance between the two, to deliver a fast-paced, engaging, and well-built crew that the reader can’t help but root for.

At Camp Zero, the sky was a relentless slab of cloud, but occasionally it cleared, allowing her to look up and see them waiting for her, her stars; they had been waiting her whole life and she only had to find a way to reach them. But now that she saw them unfiltered, she felt revolted. They weren’t beautiful. They were the lights of anglerfish, deep-sea monstrosities with glowing lures, calling the small and stupid toward jaws and needle teeth. There was only death out here, only void and fire, and the true beauty of the universe was what she had left behind. She had grown up in a warm, safe bubble of air and failed to realise how miraculous it was.



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