There’s been lots of weird fiction on this blog lately and near future tales. But we’re back to pure science fiction this time with a space adventure from Linda Nagata.
Review: Edges: Inverted Frontier, Book 1, Linda Nagata, 2019.
A space quest to determine what happened to the human homeworlds, games of deception played against alien berserker ships in deep space, and a mysterious castaway who wants to hijack that quest for his own ends – this novel returns to the universe of Nagata’s Nanotech Succession and takes place shortly after Vast.
Nagata says she crafted this to be a new entry point into the series, and she succeeded. I remembered little of the last two novels of the series, Deception Well and Vast and was able to pick up on the story quickly.
The Inverted Frontier of the title refers to the center of humanity’s expansion into space, the core from which man expanded outward. That core, the Hallowed Vasties, seems to have undergone some great change, the Dyson swarms around its suns have been dismantled. Thus humanity, at least in its altered version, exists only on the fringe planet of Deception Well.
The story opens with a Chenzeme courser approaching that planet. It’s not a welcome event, but it is one that has been prepared for since humanity fought a war against the Chenzeme, a mysterious alien race extensively using biological modifications and nanotech in its spaceships.
But the ship, the Dragon, turns out to unexpectedly be in friendly hands. Urban, part of the expedition at the center of Vast, has returned to Deception Well with a ship he commands. He’s imposed his will on the ship’s alien sentient technology, an experience later likened to having a foot on a murderer’s throat.
Urban’s not stopping at Deception Well, not even slowing down, but headed towards the Hallowed Vasties to see what happened there. He puts the call out for 10 volunteers to go with him.
He especially wants the local version of Clemantine, his old lover who went with him on that expedition, to join him.
Her body is revived from its “sleep” and her “ghost”, an electronic recording of her personality and memories, is beamed to the ship along with the unexpectedly large number of Deception Well inhabitants, 60 in all, that want to join Urban’s expedition.
Reminiscent of some of Peter F. Hamilton’s work, Nagata comes up with several uses and implications for the idea that human consciousness can be recorded, the resulting data modified and pruned and duplicated and incorporated into bodies. For instance, one of the volunteers memorably has trouble following Urban’s example of casually creating bodies, putting a ghost in them, and using them as disposable reconnaissance units. Also, there are not the resources to let all the volunteers incarnate physically, so their ghosts must inhabit the ship’s computer system.
But, when the ship meets, in the ruins of a world, a mysterious human called Lezuri who wants to use the Dragon for his own ends, a struggle for the ship and the fate of the expedition kicks into high gear.
While I criticized Vast for being a bit slow in parts, that certainly was not the case in this book of over 400 pages. Nagata quickly presents conflicts and resolves them and throws new ones up. Is Urban, showing up in a Chenzeme ship, trustworthy? Is Lezuri’s distress signal a trap? Can he be trusted?
Again, I’m impressed by how much emotion Nagata gets out of such sparse prose. She gives us jealous characters and shows how some of them become more hardened and ruthless as the novel progresses.
Nagata has never treated nanotechnology as magic. While her use of that now omnipresent bit of sf hardware is not as detailed as Wil McCarthy’s Bloom, she still treats it as a technology with limitations. It takes time to work. It generates heat. It needs the relevant raw materials, and it is not invulnerable. It’s possible I wasn’t paying close enough attention when reading Vast, but I think her explanations of Chenzeme technology are clearer here.
I did have a couple of quibbles.
First, Vytet, who is constantly changing her appearance and sex, seems a sop to modern transgender obsessions. To be fair, though, body switching and gender swapping has been a sf thing since at least John Varley. Even Poul Anderson, in The Boat of a Million Years, had characters undergoing sex change.
Second, I’m not sure why she decided to narrate the interludes with Vytet in the currently trendy second person. She could have kept their immediacy and mystery and used traditional third person voice.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
I really like the transformation of Clemantine in this novel. When she takes over the captured Chenzeme courser Griffin, she becomes hardened and more ruthless from her constant supervision of the “philosopher cells”, the nodes of its information system. She only receives updates from her copy still on the Dragon, but she won’t allow the experience of her bleak existence to be sent back. She fears tainting her other self with the trauma of constantly being exposed to the fanatical hatred of the Chenzeme. There are a lot of elements from Deception Well and Vast that are not covered here: Urban having a bit of Chenzeme in him or that the Chenzeme fought a civil war. Their opponents were carriers of a “charismatic plague”, a nanotech modification.