Linda Nagata has always dramatized complex ideas about human identity, but her new novel, Silver, second in the Inverted Frontier series, pushes this exploration to a new level. She combines two story-worlds to achieve this. Edges, the first book in this new series, brought us back to the world of the Nanotech Succession universe, while Silver lands key characters from Edges in the midst of the world last explored in Nagata’s 2003 novel, Memory.
Cast into unfamiliar and potentially chaotic situations, Nagata’s characters have to hold onto the essentials that define who they are. In the world of Edges, and the predecessor novels of the Nanotech Succession, her characters spend much of their lives in electronic form as “ghosts” that can be embodied in physical form but retain all the feelings and thoughts that define them whatever form they take.
In Edges, Urban becomes captain of the biomechanical alien ship Dragon by immersing an electronic version of himself in the hostile, sentient cells of the Chenzeme warship. He fights against their instinct to destroy anything not Chenzeme and successfully asserts his mental control over their fierce antihuman logic. He not only holds onto what is human, he also expands his identity to embrace the alien cells.
After he is expelled from Dragon and nearly extinguished as an entity by the godlike Lezuri at the end of Edges, he speeds in an outrider vessel toward that being’s home planet to prevent him from reaching it first and regaining all of his lost powers.
So it is that he lands on Verilotus, a ring-shaped world created and then broken by Lezuri and his goddess lover who fought fiercely over the purpose and direction of that world. While Lezuri was cast out and gravely wounded, the goddess also suffered. Her creative powers and mind, dispersed and ineffective, left a damaged but beautiful world behind.
In Memory, a daring young woman named Jubilee realizes that she is in some sense a reflection of the goddess, a kind of avatar, just as her lover Yaphet turns out to be a reflection of Lezuri, resembling him in the physical form that Lezuri sometimes assumes.
The broken world of Verilotus is dominated by a strange flowing medium, known as the silver, that rises during the night, absorbing living things into its fatal fluid and chaotically tossing up remnant structures and fragments of past ages. Like other inhabitants of this world, Jubilee and Yaphet have been taken by the silver, then reborn into successive lives over thousands of years. Yet the memories and knowledge of those earlier lives only emerges gradually and incompletely in their present consciousness.
The silver itself is a repository of human memory and civilization, and individuals keep re-emerging from it in new lives but have little understanding of their past. This is the opposite of the people from the world of Edges who retain a clear sense of self and identity no matter how many times they shift between physical and electronic forms.
After Urban arrives in Verilotus and assumes a physical form, he encounters Jubilee and starts to learn about the silver. He is also intrigued by life on a planet, with a vast open sky and changeable weather. Most of his life he has lived in virtual form, as an avatar in spaceships or in his original physical form on a station atop a space elevator overlooking a hostile alien world. He wants to wander across this strange and beautiful land and savors novel sensations, like rain falling out of the sky.
But time is short. Lezuri arrives and sets about gathering his power and constructing weapons to destroy the humans. Urban races to find ways to use the silver to block Lezuri’s attempts to take over the planet and reshape it to his violent purposes.
With Jubilee’s help he is able to enter the silver and explore its nature. He sees a parallel between existence in the silver and in the electronic structures of his experience and finds new connections and abilities. Just as he did when immersing himself in the alien cells of Chenzeme warships, he finds a way to assert some level of control over the silver.
To keep himself from being lost in this new medium, which quickly overwhelms most humans who are taken by it, Urban has to focus on the essential drives that make him human. As he struggles in the silver, “he sensed himself dissolve into a vast Jovian-scale atmosphere of other-memory, the memory of a world, of a people, of ages come and gone.”
To keep from disappearing in that other-memory, he has to focus on “the entangled definition of his existence” within the silver. He singles out his own memory and his own intention to form a momentum and direction allowing him to organize himself while still drawing on the powers of the silver to change Verilotus and limit what Lezuri can do to strengthen himself.
While Urban takes on the battle against Lezuri on this formidable level of mind and will that can lead to massive reshaping of the planet, Jubilee confronts an avatar of Lezuri in a more feeling way. Lezuri faces her in a form that resembles her lover, Yaphet. That appearance makes it almost impossible for her to use the weapons she has to destroy him. The whole arc of her character in both Memory and Silver is embedded in her close bonds with her family and the quest to find her lover. All that is put to the test in this powerful climax.
Though both Urban and Jubilee have lives that have extended through thousands of years, Urban has retained his identity through time while Jubilee knows herself primarily through her present young life of only two decades. The people in Urban’s life persist even after a particular physical embodiment dies. For Jubilee, each human loss, and there are many, is experienced as permanent death, and in the treacherous world dominated by the unpredictable silver those relationships are everything.
Nagata embeds her searching exploration of human nature in an exciting adventure that is well plotted and tightly paced, especially as it works toward its conclusion. The intense struggles of her characters to hold onto who they are makes the story a deeply human one.
Silver is the second in the Inverted Frontier series, and there are plenty of questions yet to be answered as this elaborate sequence unfolds. I’m eager to find out where the next volume will take us.