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Literature / Jacob's Ladder Trilogy

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The original trilogy covers.

The Jacob's Ladder trilogy is a science fiction series by Elizabeth Bear.

Hundreds of years ago, the colony ship Jacob's Ladder was launched from the dying Earth by a fanatical religious cult in order to colonize a new world. However, its journey has not been an easy one. Following a catastrophic meteor strike called the Breaking, a civil war erupted between the engineers and the command crew and divided the ship between the warring factions of Engine and Rule. Worse, the governing AI of the ship was fractured by the disaster, dividing into a vast host of squabbling subsystems with no desire to work together. Three of the most powerful fragments now war with each other for control of the ship: Jacob Dust, the Angel of Memory; Samael, the Angel of Life Support; and Asrafil, the Angel of Weapons Systems. Unless the fractured computer and crew can reunite, the vessel is doomed. And the task of saving the world-ship falls to two unlikely girls: Perceval, an Exalt noble from Engine; and Rien, a Mean servant from Rule.

The series consists of Dust, Chill, and Grail.

Not to be confused with the film Jacob's Ladder. For a freeware game with a similar premise, see Iron Gaia.

This series includes examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The main AI governing Jacob's Ladder, Israfil, was already a bit dodgy due to having been programmed by religious fanatics. When the Breaking fragmented it into hundreds of Angels and djinn, each with their own will and agenda, it's not surprising that some of them turned out evil. Namely, Asrafil and Jacob Dust.
  • Alien Blood: Exalts have blue blood due to the nanotech colonies inhabiting them.
  • Back from the Dead: Several Angels and Exalts manage to return from apparent death using certain tricks: compressing their program into a seed virus and storing it in safely isolated pockets of nanotech for Angels, and Brain Uploading their memories into Body Backup Drives for Exalts. However, in those cases, it's stated that the preserved backup is only a pale shadow of the original. There's only one character who is fully and completely restored to their precise pre-death state: Rien, who sacrificed herself to create the Angel Nova, is restored by Nova when the Angel has finished fulfilling its purpose and decides to self-terminate.
  • Big Bad: Each of the three novels has a different Big Bad. In Dust, it's Asrafil; in Chill, it's Asrafil's revenant; and in Grail, it's Jacob Dust's revenant.
  • Body Backup Drive: An Exalt's mind, as recorded by their symbiotic colony, can be downloaded into a new body. Several characters are resurrected in this manner following their first death, including Damian Jsutien, Ariane Conn and Cynric the Sorceress. However, those who know characters both pre- and post-resurrection state that a lot of the original personality is lost with the original brain and that the resurectees are only pale shadows of who they once were.
  • Brain Uploading: All Exalts upload their minds to their symbiotic nanite colonies. In the event of their death, their mind can be transferred to the Library for access by necromancers, or downloaded into a Body Backup Drive. To prevent their enemies from coming back in this way, some people make a habit of consuming the colonies of those they kill, gaining their memories in the process.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: The "rightminding" procedure used on Grail, which is used to eliminate all irrational thought. The crew of Jacob's Ladder are somewhat amused to learn that despite this, there is still violent crime on Grail — just by criminals acting for for unimpeachably rational reasons. None are actually keen on undergoing the procedure themselves — with the exception of Cynric, who cheerfully admits that her personality could probably benefit from a bit of amending.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Permitted among the Exalts, since their nanotech prevents any birth defects in children.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: In a conversation between Jacob Dust and Samael, it's noted that Angels' programming prevents them from outright lying, but doesn't stop them from deceiving by withholding information.
  • Captured Super-Entity: Leviathan. It's one of a pair of spaceborne aliens which Cynric the Sorceress captured and used to develop the nanotech colonies, and which has remained imprisoned and plotting revenge ever since.
  • Celibate Hero: Perceval took a vow of celibacy, viewing romance as a distraction from her duty. She is canonically asexual, although the word she uses most is celibate. Perceval at one point also uses asexed when she is explaining to Rien why she's not interested in her. Or anyone else, for that matter. Later it's mentioned that in this regard Perceval is a lot like her aunt Cynric the Sorceress.
  • Colony Ship: Jacob's Ladder, an entire self-contained world sent to find a new planet to colonize.
  • Cryonics Failure: Jacob's Ladder is a combination Generation Ship and Sleeper Starship, with both a living crew and Human Popsicles in storage. During the journey, most of the human popsicles die and are recycled for raw materials. It was known when they launched that the cryonics technology was unreliable; the passengers were people desperate enough to risk it anyway.
  • The Dragon: In Dust, Ariane Conn. In Chill, Arianrhod Conn. In Grail, Ariane Conn again.
  • Earth That Was: The Jacob's Ladder has been out of contact with Earth for centuries; and given the political and environmental situation when they left, they mostly assume that there's nothing left by now but a burnt cinder. But they're wrong, as Grail reveals that Earth subsequently managed to recover.
  • Epic Fail: In-universe, Cynric the Sorceress has a reputation for failures as magnitudinous as her successes. Mallory and Tristen conclude that one particular disaster is not her fault because one of her screw-ups would have been a great deal more catastrophic.
    Cynric did not make merely human errors. Her mistakes were more on the epic scale, her failings those of demigods.
  • Everybody Wants the Hermaphrodite: Mallory, the self-chosen hermaphrodite necromancer, invokes this when trying to talk Rien into having sex by insinuating that it's more interesting with a partner who is both male and female in one. It works on Rien, though whether this trope holds true for everyone else on their Small, Secluded World Colony Ship or Mallory is just starved for attention remains unclear.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: The Builders who created Jacob's Ladder belonged to a religious cult of Evilutionary Biologists who believed that humanity could only advance by facing constant adversity. They expected and indeed hoped for massive amounts of suffering and death among the crew in order to make the survivors stronger.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: While Jacob's Ladder was created to be a sublight Generation Ship, FTL travel features in the third book. It was invented after Jacob's Ladder left Earth, resulting in other humans leaping past them and colonizing Grail / Fortune first.
  • Feudal Future: Jacob Dust is fond of storybooks, and chose to model the post-Breaking social structure of Jacob's Ladder after Arthurian feudalism.
  • Fusion Dance: The divided Angels must perform one to reunite into a single AI capable of controlling the entire ship. There is much conflict between them because only one mind will be in control of the final fusion, and each Angel wants to be that mind. Ultimately, Rien's interference in the process results in the birth of the Angel Nova, which has a unique identity of its own rather than the mind of any of its components.
  • Generation Ship: The Jacob's Ladder is a generation ship on a multi-century journey to colonize another planet. It covers its bases by having a living ecosystem with crew members that are born and die en route in addition to holds carrying frozen sleepers. The society on the Jacob's Ladder has regressed to a quasi-medieval feudal system which considers the ship's fragmented AI to be angels on one side and a quasi-city known as Engine on the other, who are at war. And though they have developed technologies which allow them to technically live forever, they are only made accessible to the Exalts of the House of Rule, while everyone else is a Mean and not worthy of it. Additionally, large parts of the ship have broken down and stopped to function, making travel between Rule and Engine extremely difficult and leaving parts of the ship to fend for themselves. The last book not only reveals that the feudal system was intentional and the ship was originally launched by religious fanatics whom nobody else on Earth wanted anything to do with, but also that technology has marched on. When the Jacob's Ladder finally arrives at a habitable planet they find it already colonized by other humans, who also consider the inhabitants of the ship to be fanatical aliens because their technology has changed them so much from their anchestors.
  • Grand Theft Me: Someone who has used Brain Uploading to digitize their memories can convert their mind into a "daemon seed" and implant it into the nanomachine colony of another body. The daemon seed will then reprogram the nanites to erase the mind of the body's original owner and install the digitized mind in its place. This technique is used in Grail by Ariane Conn, who tries to take over the bodies of Oliver Conn and Chelsea Conn. She is purged from the former, but succeeds in stealing the latter.
  • Hermaphrodite: Mallory the necromancer is a hermaphrodite.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hero Ng, who sacrificed himself to stop the reactor coolant leak caused by the Breaking. And Rien, who sacrifices herself to unite the Angels into a new worldsoul at the climax of Dust.
  • Human Popsicle: Jacob's Ladder carries hundreds of thousands of cryogenically frozen passengers.
  • Human Resources: Due to the severely limited resources on Jacob's Ladder, the living crew were forced to begin recycling the Human Popsicles in storage for resources to stabilize the environment following the Breaking.
  • Ironic Name: Samael, whose name means "Poison of God", is the Angel of Life Support. And though named after an angel often associated with demons or the devil, he is the only one of the three main Angels who never becomes a villain.
  • Lost Orphaned Royalty: Rien, who was raised as a simple serving girl in Rule, learns that she is actually an Exalt from Engine.
  • Magic from Technology: Due to Jacob Dust's love of storybooks, the Jacob's Ladder has a fantasy theme; the "magic" is actually accomplished through nanotech called Colonies. Cynric, who developed the first colonies, became known as "Cyrnric the Sorceress" because of her ability to use them to perform seemingly magical feats.
  • The Magnificent: Cynric is known as Cynric the Sorceress due to her creation of nanomachine colonies sufficently advanced to invoke Clarke's Third Law.
  • Many Spirits Inside of One: Necromancers, who specialize in downloading the recorded minds of the deceased into their own brains, eventually become this.
    Mallory: I've got a head full of so many dead people I suspect whoever I started off as should probably be counted as one of them.
  • Meaningful Name: Subverted in Rien's case. She always assumed that she had been given a meaningful name: "Rien" is French for "nothing", and the nothingness surrounding the ship is the crew's most hated Enemy, so Rien believed that she had been so named as an insult because she was unloved and unwanted. After living with this belief for many years, she is surprised to learn that she was simply named after her mother, with no deeper meaning intended.
  • The Mutiny: In the aftermath of the Breaking, a disagreement over how to handle the damage escalated into the engineers mutinied against the command crew. This led to the permanent division of the ship into the warring kingdoms of Engine and Rule.
  • Named Weapons: Unblades have names such as "Charity", "Innocence", and "Mercy".
  • Naming Your Colony World: The crew call their destination planet "Grail", because it's the destination of their quest and because Jacob Dust gave the ship medieval-Arthurian storybook stylings.
  • Nanomachines: Groups of nanomachines called colonies were created by Cynric the Sorceress. They are used for a variety of purposes, including granting Exalts their abilities and making physical bodies for the Angels.
  • Organic Technology: Following the invention of nanotech colonies, most of the technological toolkits on Jacob's Ladder have been incorporated into living creature. Gavin the Basilisk, for instance, was originally a welding torch.
  • Red Baron: Tristen Conn is widely called Tristen Tiger due to his fierceness in combat.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: The AIs on Jacob's Ladder are named after Angels; some examples include Israfil, Samael, and Asrafil.
  • Small, Secluded World: The Jacob's Ladder is all its inhabitants know. They even call it the World, and though they are aware of Earth's existence, it's just something their ship at some point started from. The ship is partitioned in various areas with their owm cultures, inhabitants and purposes, creating even smaller worlds some of which are inaccessible but functional due to a catastrophic fallout prior to the trilogy's story.
  • Soulless Shell: Exalts have nanotech that can eventually repair their bodies from nearly any injury, even biological death. However, when the damage is extremely severe, the person's mind might not be recoverable. Those resurrected by their nanomachines without their minds are nothing but empty shells, are used as Body Backup Drives by those in the opposite situation — minds recovered but bodies destroyed beyond repair. This is a recipe for angst for their living relatives; Tristen Conn, for instance, is forced to interact with the antagonist Dorcas while Dorcas is inhabiting the former body of his mind-dead daughter Sparrow.
  • Synthetic Plague: A genetically engineered strain of influenza, so potent that it is capable of afflicting even Exalts with their nanotech-boosted immune systems, is used as a biological weapon against Rule.
  • Tarot Troubles: Jacob Dust performs a tarot reading for Samael using a special deck with six suites. When Samael questions whether Dust believes in fortunetelling, Dust responds that he believes in stacking the deck.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: It's stated in Grail that Means are sometimes executed this way — but the victims are tied to tethers so their bodies can be reeled back in afterwards, because the ship's resources are so precious that every corpse must be recycled rather than surrendered to the vacuum, the Enemy.
  • Transferable Memory: Exalts store copies of their memories in their nanomachine colonies. They can trade memories by exchanging pieces of their colonies.
  • Transhuman: Some of the crew of Jacob's Ladder have bonded with symbiotic nanomachine colonies to become more than human. They are called Exalts, in contrast to the baseline-human Means. At the end of the trilogy, most of the crew progress further into transhumanism by abandoning their physical bodies and uploading their minds entirely into the nanomachine colonies, becoming Angels.
  • Typhoid Mary: Perceval. She is infected with a deadly strain of influenza and set her up to be taken prisoner by Rule in order for her to unknowingly spread it to her captors. The one responsible is the Angel Asrafil.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Unblades use nanotech to inflict wounds that can't be healed.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Mallory calls Dorcas, the leader of the Edenite "Go-Backer" movement, a terrorist and suggests killing her. Tristen declines, suggesting that she could just as easily be seen as a freedom fighter.