Needle is the third book in Linda Nagata’s compelling Inverted Frontier series that began with Edges and continued with Silver. This is an epic story of the search for remnants of human civilizations reaching back from the farthest reach of settlement toward the origin of it all. Urban and the crew of the Dragon encounter god-like beings and surviving islands of humanity along the way. In Needle, they are entering the Tanjiri system where they find the scattered remnants of a vast structure that once surrounded the star and was destroyed in some great cataclysm.
The god-like figure of Lezuri, who had been at the center of action in Silver, has given Urban a needle-like rod 12 centimeters in length and containing all his power. But how to open that object and reveal what it contains? And why did Lezuri warn them from even attempting to confront the vast powers within the Tanjiri system? Those are questions that dominate this story. It’s another exciting and absorbing chapter in this deeply involving saga.
I suppose Needle could be read on its own, but it gains considerable power in the context of the greater story arc. And Nagata’s approach to the action is different from typical stories based on battles and martial arts. In these stories, the action is more about the mastery of mind and spirit to control forces greater than any that humans have before survived.
If the setting is new to you, however, the author brilliantly fills in background through essential dramatic action. Urban and Clemantine are leading their crew on the great warship Dragon and its companion Griffin. These ships are living entities, or biomechanical weapons, dominated by partially sentient cells of Chenzeme origin, an alien species intent on destroying every other life form they encounter. Only through vast mental efforts have these single-minded cells been brought under human control, and it takes constant vigilance by Urban, on the bridge of Dragon, and Clemantine on the Griffin to shape the consensus of the cells to follow human directives.
They achieve this by sending ghosts, or copies of their minds, to guide the ships. Urban, who was the first to wrest control of a Chenzeme courser, did so alone and created a half dozen versions of himself, which he called Apparatchiks, to handle specialized functions. He modified each Apparatchik, while subservient to Urban’s values and constraints, to accomplish specific tasks with a personality shaped to that purpose, such as piloting or bio-mechanical engineering or research in the vast electronic library.
It is this ability to create ghosts that sets a key part of Needle’s story in motion. One of the Dragon’s crew is Vytet, who has a habit of shifting or blending genders when sending her mind and personality into physical avatars. In her present female form, she decides that the Needle’s secrets can only be revealed if approached in a completely different way. So she creates a new ghost of herself but breaks basic rules by editing out the ethical constraints and guiding principles that are common to human minds. She does this to enable her ghost, who calls herself the Cryptologist, to make a breakthrough that no one else has so far achieved.
That strategy backfires, however, when the Cryptologist decides to manifest in a physical form, thereby acquiring all the rights of any living human. She cannot be “deleted” like a ghost once her mission is accomplished but becomes a permanent member of the crew with a mind and will of her own.
The birth of the Cryptologist is especially powerful in showing how the disembodied mind at first feels caught and trapped in a physical body, its confinement emphasized by the binding tendrils of wall-weed that keep avatars in cocoons as they are forming within the ship’s tissue. At first she panics and tries to send her ghost back to the library but realizes she cannot escape the body. Her core self still exists as a ghost, but now this new self is permanently blended into the physicality of the body.
The Cryptologist’s unpredictability sets up only the first of a series of actions that keep raising the stakes and tension as multiple threats to the Dragon fleet arise. As they enter the Tanjiri system, the crew realize they are being followed by two mysterious entities, which might be ships or defensive missiles. These turn out to be only two of thousands within the system, all on the alert for hostile intruders. Urban manages to communicate the fleet’s peaceful intentions, and these tracking entities, which seem to have a degree of sentience, then direct Dragon to a particular point in the system.
There they find the splintered remains of a gigantic ship, split into huge fragments. They observe what seems to be a living forest, adapted to vacuum conditions, growing on the icy remnants of a once great vessel. And amid the tangles of this forest entity, they discern humanoid creatures. These turn out to be a human people from a planet called Sakura, and they invite members of the Dragon’s crew to tour their strange home. They tell a tale of betrayal by their own people, some of whom traveled deeper into the system to create their own colony but only after destroying the mother ship. To adapt to the grim conditions they faced, the Sakurans developed an outer skin of ceramic-hard tiny scales and a hood-like appendage that can cover their heads and enable them to breathe in the vacuum. It’s a meager existence, however, and full of danger, so Urban and the crew help them out of a desperate situation.
After sharing resources with the Sakurans that will enable them to thrive, the Dragon crew move on to find the other group of Sakurans who have built a city in orbit around the planet Prakruti. This planet is a lush, earth-like environment which has its own mysterious power that has kept the Sakurans from ever visiting. Also in orbit around Prakruti is the moon Evo which is a new creation, no more than 4000 years old, created by an unimaginable power. It is the entities dwelling in this planet and its moon that the missile-ships accompanying Dragon are especially vigilant to protect.
So there are several parallel threats in motion. The Cryptologist is trying to outdo Urban and contact the forces that contain the secrets of the Needle, however dangerous they might be. One group of Sakurans may try to take vengeance on the other and so spark a conflict that could cause the sentinels of the system to wipe out all the humans. Urban’s confrontation with the mysterious powers of this system that seem god-like in scope is fast approaching. And always there is the struggle to keep the warlike tendencies of the Chenzeme cells of Dragon under control.
Nagata is at her best in sustaining and deepening these complex threats that can endanger the survival of the scattered remnants of human life. Needle brings us one more chapter in the long search for human survivors and clues to understand what led to the great catastrophe that destroyed most human worlds. I hope there will be many more to come. The Inverted Frontier series has a unique power to combine the adventure of galactic-scale exploration and adventure with the intensity of the inner battles of mind to master levels of reality no humans have encountered before.
My thanks to Linda Nagata and Mythic Island Press for letting me have an advance review copy as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.