Linda Nagata,
(Bantam, 1998)

Those unfamiliar with science fiction or who know it only through its non-print media manifestations invariably judge it as a genre that deals exclusively with events of the future. However erroneous this judgement may be, such persons will nevertheless not be disappointed with Linda Nagata's novel Vast, for upon opening it the reader is immediately in the far, far future, more than 30 million years beyond the present.

Notwithstanding such an awesome distance in time, the author relies strictly on a conservative interpretation of the laws of the universe so that, for example, there is no faster-than-light technology, and there is a commensurate communication delay with increasing spatial distance. Such narrative disciplines place the novel firmly in the sub-genre category of "hard" SF.

Unsurprisingly, the paradigmatic technology of the 20th century (the digital encoding of information) is long superseded. Nanotechnology devices are now ubiquitous, some being microscopic (in people's bloodstream, for example) and others large enough to be analogous to the biological cell in that, like these cells they self-assemble to form larger structures (animals in the case of biological cells, but here, with nanotech, starships).

People this far in future history must of course be completely different from any humans today. And this poses a problem for writers of far future SF in that their characters must have a "strangeness" about them in order to be credible and yet must not be so different as to appear alien/non-human and therefore incomprehensible. In Vast we rub shoulders with strange creatures who, though not easy to get to know or to understand, do reveal themselves to us as undeniably human.

Indeed it is one of the pleasures of this novel that we are left to puzzle these people out for ourselves. The slow process of accretion by which the reader is allowed to build their own mental model of the lives lived aboard a starship almost eliminates the necessity for passages of dense expository prose (usually unavoidable in hard SF). Instead, the accumulation of telling details works to generate the atmosphere or "feel" of how humans might live at a time so vastly distant from our own.

That constraint of having to make human characters accessible does not apply to descriptions of future technology -- in fact quite the opposite, the stranger the better. Here Linda Nagata does her readers proud. The starship that our small group of protagonists inhabit is being chased by a deadly warship that was built by an unknown race and is of a type that has been "evolving" for 30 million years of human history. Each of the ships is a nanotech construct.

The word "evolving" is not a figure of speech; such warships truly evolve. Nanotech has become so sophisticated that these ships face an ancient dilemma, one first faced by organic life. In the evolution of life anything that lives does so because it has successfully decoded the instructions contained in its DNA in order to built itself. The success of this strategy depends on a code being handed down from generation to generation while at the same time being refined, a process seen at its most elaborate in sexual reproduction -- the mixing of codes from two separate individuals. Of course any individual animal who is careless about who it chooses to mix its code with is likely to end up extinct or as someone's dinner. Hence the elaborate mating rituals found in nature, and now also in interstellar space where we witness starships playing a deadly game of subterfuge, of high stakes cat and mouse where one seeks to avoid destruction by convincing the other that it is not "foreign" and a worthy "mate." At the same time the humans aboard the starship engage in this same eternal ritual, but one still recognisably grounded, despite 30 million years of evolution, in the familiar agony and ecstasy of human relationships.

However, the goal of this group is not simply to survive the confrontation with the warship, they are also on a quest. Through their ability to live for long stretches of time they have lost knowledge of themselves and their history to such an extent that a mystery lies at the heart of their existence, a mystery they become determined to solve.

Vast is rich in ideas, and successfully combines them with characters driven by such ancient emotions as love, jealousy and revenge to offer a convincing glimpse of how, as ever throughout the history of the species, humans can successfully manipulate the building blocks of the universe, to be in turn changed by these products of their own ingenuity.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002

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