Friday, March 15, 2024

Review: Edges, by Linda Nagata

Review: Edges, by Linda Nagata

by Rich Horton

Linda Nagata published four novels in the 1990s that got considerable notice -- Tech-Heaven, The Bohr Maker, Deception Well, and Vast. For whatever reason, though I was tempted, and though I bought a copy of Vast, I never got around to reading them. They are all set in a common future history, stretching forward at least a couple of thousand years, and a couple of hundred light years, as humans colonize a good chunk of the localish star systems, and undergo significant changes themselves, and encounter the Berserker-like Chenzeme: alien spaceships left by a long gone race, with the goal of exterminating any technological civilizations they find. She won the 2001 Nebula for Best Novella with "Goddesses". 

Then, it seems, her publishing career went the way of all too many solid midlist writers. I met her at a convention a number of years ago, at a kaffeeklatsch, and she discussed her new publishing model: self publishing via her own press, Mythic Island. She was working on a new trilogy, The Red, which as it happened, after the first novel came out from Mythic Island, found a home with traditional publisher Saga Press, and which garnered a couple more award nominations. She also published some more excellent short fiction -- I reprinted three of her stories in my best of the year series. Her novels since the Red trilogy have come out from Mythic Island.*

With all this, I knew I needed to try her novels, but my short fiction reading schedule made that hard. That schedule has eased however, and recently she mentioned somewhere the release of Blade, the fourth novel in a new series collectively called Inverted Frontier. I figured I should start with the first in the series, which is the book at hand, Edges, which was published in 2019. I went looking for an audio version, and was delighted to find that Edges is available free in that form. So I got it, and I've read it. (It is narrated, very well, by Nicole Poole.)

It turns out that the Inverted Frontier books are set in the same future as her 1990s novels. Indeed, Edges is a more or less direct sequel (if hundreds of years later) to Vast, and the two books share some characters. The novel opens with Riffan Naja serving on Deception Well's ship Long Watch, monitoring space for evidence of a Chenzeme attack. (I confess that I first heard the name as "Griffin", which became amusing later on when a starship named Griffin became part of the plot.) Riffan is an anthropologist who has a particular interest in studying the collapsed human civilizations "inward" (towards Earth, that is) -- civilizations that were either destroyed by the Chenzeme or failed on their own -- many of them had cloaked their stars in Dyson swarms, which have since disappeared, so that the stars are again visible. (Deception Well's people call these the Hollowed Vasties.) An intruder spaceship is suddenly detected, and it has Chenzeme features. But as it nears there is a message, a human voice, urging them not to shoot.

They soon realize that this is a captured and subverted Chenzeme ship, and its sole crewmember is Urban, who had been part of the Null Boundary expedition from Deception Well several hundred years before. (This expedition is, I understand, the subject of Vast.) And suddenly another member of that expedition -- or a version of her -- is awakened from cold sleep on the Long Watch. We realize (and readers of Nagata's earlier novels presumably already know) that humans in this future are long-lived, either in their physical bodies, or by spending time in cold sleep, or by copying themselves (as "ghosts") into computational substrates. Clemantine has had a copy of herself in cold sleep, waiting for news -- of danger, or of something like the return of the Null Boundary expedition. And she now realizes that if Urban has returned alone, she herself as well as the other members of the expedition, did not. 

Urban has a message -- he's not returning home. He wants to continue inward, towards the Hollowed Vasties. He wants company in the form of Clemantine, who had been his lover. They soon reignite their relationship (with Urban, who had been a ghost, occupying a newly grown body.) And she agrees to accompany him -- but right away Riffan and another of the Long Watch crew, Pasha, ask to join them. And before long, there are dozens more Deception Well citizens sending ghosts to Urban's ship (the Dragon) with the intention to also explore the Hollowed Vasties.

The plot of this novel, then, turns on two conflicts. One is political disagreements among the sixty plus people now on the Dragon -- which at first doesn't have room to host them all physically, or even as active ghosts. The other concerns a mysterious "entity" who at first shows up in a separate series of chapters -- apparently a much altered human who was exiled to an uninhabited rock in the area between Deception Well and the Hollowed Vasties. Inevitably, the Dragon is lured to the signs of activity at that rock, and when the "entity" manages to send a copy of itself to the Dragon, the question arises -- is this creature even human? Is it friendly (as it claims) or dangerous? That question too divides the Dragon's new population.

There's a lot more going on. And while some of the main questions are answered, others are unresolved, and further complications are set in place -- just as we expect for the first book of a five book series. That's OK, mind you. This book is exciting and stuffed with good old-fashioned Sense of Wonder. The plot is cool -- Nagata manages to make fights between disembodied patterns of data both comprehensible and exciting. There is real tension, real human relationships to deal with, cool technology, and an ending that promises more wonders -- after all, the Dragon (and some companion ships that eventuate!) has not yet even reached the first star they wish to visit in the Hollowed Vasties.

I'm not at all sure how different the experience would be to someone who had read Vast and its predecessors. I will say that Edges works quite well without knowledge of the other books -- but there are some things I really want to know that I realize I'll have to read at least Vast to learn. (Which is hardly a bad thing.) 

The book is gloriously stuffed with cool SFnal ideas, mostly ones we've seen before but expertly wielded here. It's an example of far future SF that I would call "hard SF" even though I find some of the technology implausible. (I think that the farther in the future a writer goes, the more important it is to have implausible (and often likely impossible) tech -- because it would also be implausible to imply that thousands of years from now our understanding of science won't have revealed unimagined wonders.) So -- in this book we have uploaded minds, cold sleep, exotic tech that propels starships at significant fractions of light speed (but no FTL), multiple versions of oneself (and lots of different ideas among different persons about the identity questions that arise), group minds or hive minds implied (not really seen yet), genocidal robot ships, Dyson swarms, body-swapping and body alterations, astronomical wonders, and more. It's a great deal of fun, exciting, scary. And now I'll have to read the rest! 

*This career path seems to have been taken (or been forced upon them) by a number of really fine older writers recently -- besides Nagata I can cite Greg Egan, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Brenda Clough at least. I think it can work for writers who have established an audience and who have the experience to realize they need editing and other forms of help (and, hey, I know there are new writers who have had success in this fashion as well.) For all that, it does make me sad that traditional publishing seems less likely to support writers with established reputations who may be unlikely to produce a major bestseller but who still write good books that should sell at some reasonable level.

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