“Against a starscape, a smudge of white light. A faint gleam, devoid of detail.” With those few words Linda Nagata begins Edges, picking up a story of human survival in a hostile universe she last explored over twenty years ago.
Nagata published six science fiction novels between 1995 – 2003 but then took a long break to work on other projects. She roared back to SFF a few years ago with her compelling military science fiction series, The Red, and a stand-alone novel, The Last Good Man. These were great stories, written in a pared-down dynamic style, but I missed the uniquely involving dramatic texture of her earlier books, especially Vast.
That book, last in a series called the Nanotech Succession, followed the Locus award winning Bohr Maker and Deception Well. The series explored a universe where human settlements struggle to survive against alien forces that have long since destroyed earth and the human-settled star systems known as the Hallowed Vasties. After Nagata’s 20-year hiatus, Edges brings us right back to that universe while initiating a new series that promises to be just as absorbing as the earlier books.
Human and Alien Minds
The unique quality of her world is the intense conflict between human and alien minds at a level of cellular networks. This plays out against a background of the human fight for survival across vast reaches of space. The drama is contained, for the most part, within space ships that consist of biomechanical tissues and layers of alien cells. Human survival depends on the ability to impose human will and direction on these networks of intelligent cells.
Two alien forces have long since destroyed Earth and its settled planets in distant star systems. One is known as the cult virus which infected human worlds with intelligent cells bent on absorbing and eradicating other life forms. Equally threatening is an extinct civilization known as the Chenzeme, also probably destroyed by the cult virus. Their legacy is a fleet of robotic warships capable of obliterating whole planets. These sentient biomechanical ships patrol the universe searching out any civilization it can find to destroy. This is revenge projected into an endless future millions of years after the death of the Chenzeme entities that created the deadly lurking ships.
Vast: The Nanotech Succession
Vast describes the voyage of the human ship, Null Boundary, in its quest to find the source of the Chenzeme warships and hopefully destroy them. Its small crew come from the isolated human settled world known as Deception Well.
They can communicate with each other through a special cell network in their minds called an atrium. Each atrium is connected to a network within the ship that facilitates not only silent communication with others but also gives access to vast data libraries. They can generate electronic “ghosts” of themselves, comprising intelligence, will and identity, and send them on missions. In electronic form, they can move in and out of physical bodies over the years, even centuries of their journey.
After dangerous encounters with robotic warships, one member of the Null Boundary crew, named Urban, finds himself in a climactic clash with a victim of the cult virus. He can only survive by merging himself with a Chenzeme courser he has infiltrated. He learns to control it by integrating the cells of different life forms that power the ship. It is a compelling drama as Urban struggles to retain humanity while fighting off the destructive power of alien life forms he now contains within him.
Edges: Inverted Frontier
Edges picks up seven hundred years later. Observers standing guard on Long Watch, a vessel patrolling far above Deception Well, see the approach of what appears to be the dreaded enemy, a Chenzeme courser. That is a signal that awakens Clemantine, a survivor of the Null Boundary who returned to Deception Well where she entered a centuries-long cold sleep. She sets to work work with the crew and discovers that the vessel is Urban’s transformed ship.
Urban’s electronic ghost arrives and comes to physical form within an isolated chamber of Long Watch. He reports that he is there only briefly to recruit Clemantine to join him on his voyage to fathom the mysteries of the Hallowed Vasties. She agrees, but against Urban’s advice dozens of others swell the ranks of the crew, all sending their electronic ghosts into the ship’s system. Together, they embark on a journey inward, from the outer fringe of human settlement to the places of human origin, an inverted frontier.
Dialogue with a Living Ship
The ship that Urban has taken over, called Dragon, is no passive vessel but a central character itself. The courser is “a mosaic of diverse lifeforms woven into one monstrous bio-mechanical organism.” To control this, Urban has to dedicate an electronic ghost of himself and several subminds to living within the structure of its Chenzeme cells, constantly modulating the original vengeful purposes of their existence to work in harmony with his human direction.
The Chenzeme cells are tiny minds containing memory, capable of thought and instantly exchanging information with one another, testing ideas to build consensus for action. It is a constant struggle for Urban to intervene in their ceaseless dialogues and debates to turn their conclusions to the ones he demands. Managing the ship is an ongoing drama in which the human element can be eclipsed if the greatest care is not sustained.
Ghosts and Subminds
Clemantine also takes on this challenge when she has to win control of a second courser, called Griffin, to which she sends a ghost of her own. She faces an intense struggle. Her disembodied ghost confronts the fierce Chenzeme cells that are driven by their ingrained imperatives of anger and destruction. She has to impose her will and peaceful aims on the alien cells constantly clamoring for obliteration of any unfamiliar object or being. She can barely tolerate the furies of the Chenzeme yet finally manages to impose a unity that overcomes their aggressive drives.
In one remarkable scene, Clemantine’s ghost on Griffin is so horrified by the changes in herself that are necessary to control the ship that she stops sending subminds to the original Clemantine aboard Dragon. She wants to withhold the agonizing memories to keep her “other” from having to deal with the Chenzeme toxin.
While the tension of the pilot ghost minds of Urban and Clemantine continues, the physical versions of both work through their own fraught relationship. The drama becomes more complex as dozens of other crew members from Deception Well are gradually awakened and given physical form. Together, going in and out of ghost forms, they face their own conflicts as factions form, tensions with Urban come to a boil and angry debates on the mission of the ship take hold.
Conflict with a God-Like Being
When the Dragon spots a strange object on their way to the Hallowed Vasties, Urban dispatches a small scouting vessel to investigate, helmed by an avatar of himself and another crew member. Inadvertently, they awaken a strange being of immense powers that has been wounded and waiting for a chance to revive. This entity manages to infiltrate Dragon where it appears in a semi-human form, calling itself Lezuri. It tries to seduce the human crew to serve its own purposes. Part of the crew believes the entity’s purposes are peaceful, while Clemantine and others never accept its claimed benevolence and prepare for the worst.
That worst comes when Lezuri isolates part of Dragon’s cell structure for its own uses and sets about attacking Urban and all his subminds that control the ship. In a powerfully building climax, one ghost of Urban after another is defeated by Lezuri, but each sends its memories to Urban, enhancing his knowledge of the intruder’s methods and building his own defenses. But the anguish and fury of the ghosts as they are destroyed also merge with Urban’s mind, endangering his control of the ship until Clemantine takes command. She executes a last-ditch strategy to expel Lezuri but at the possible expense of Dragon’s survival.
Nagata skillfully weaves together the interplay of multiple characters and their ghosts to heighten the suspense. It’s a masterful and exciting conclusion, fulfilling in itself but also building anticipation for the next volumes in the series.
Many SFF writers have portrayed enhancements to mental powers and the ability to store human minds in electronic form, but Nagata achieves a unique integration of these ideas with the drama of her storytelling. It’s the centerpiece of inner conflict as well as a key factor in driving the larger drama forward. She isn’t just exploring an idea. She makes it real within a complex drama, and that’s what keeps pulling me back to her universe.