Rebecca K. Rowe,
Forbidden Cargo
(Edge, 2006)

Set in our universe in the year 2110, a colony of scientists has (illegally) mixed nanotechnology with genetic engineering to create the next step in human evolution. The result is the "nanogen" or, as they refer to themselves, the "Imagofas" or the Image of Fate.

As the Imagofas are reaching adulthood and discovering the nature of their advanced abilities (e.g., rapid healing, keen senses, ability to tap into the future's version of the Internet, called the MAM, without equipment), two of them become embroiled in a power struggle between two factions on Earth: the Council is the ruling body for Earth and its colonies, while the Order is the autonomous defense, security, police and intelligence arm of the Council. While both the Council and the Order publicly oppose illegal tampering with human genes out of fear that humanity would lose its sense of, well, humanity, some members of each faction secretly condone and support the research.

When a crime boss on Earth arranges to kidnap two Imagofas, he plans to sell one to a Councilwoman who opposes the development of nanogens so she can use it to discredit the Order and further bolster her own rise toward Council leadership. But, the crime boss wants to sell the other Imagofas to one of the domus, which are similar to the Great Houses in Frank Herbert's Dune (i.e., powerful family-run financial dynasties).

If it sounds complicated already, that's just the beginning, as there are several other major players who get involved, including Ochbo (a technological wizard who opposes restrictions placed by the government on public access to the MAM), the Cadet (a highly skilled MAM gamer who is also an excellent spy), Creid (the Councilwoman's husband, who invented the MAM and who does not share his wife's anti-nanogen sentiments) and Prometheus (a super-agent created by Creid who exists only in the virtual reality of the MAM, but strives to become more real). What nobody counted on was that the Imagofas in general, and the two kidnapped ones, Thesni and Sashimu, have not only extraordinary abilities, but also a powerful nascent sense of themselves as a new and separate race, including their own culture and religious beliefs.

If this sounds potentially confusing, it is. The sequences where the characters enter the virtual reality of the MAM are dreamlike, where everything might not be what is appears to be; things that happen in "Novus Orbis" (the virtual world of the MAM) can greatly affect "Vetus Orbis" (conventional reality).

However, if you are starting to want to flee this world of chaos, please don't, as you would be doing yourself, and the author, a disservice. Despite the strange, dreamlike quality that often reigns in this tale, it is very well written, the pace is just fast enough so you teeter on the edge of wanting to flee, but you never slip over that edge into chaos, and the characters are powerfully written. Sashimu, Thesni, Creid, Ochbo, Prometheus and Councilwoman Joli are all three-dimensional, credible characters with complex but realistic agendas and good blends of strengths and flaws.

While I did have to reread a few paragraphs when I started to get lost in the fuzziness between virtual and real reality, it was well worth the effort as this is an exciting, action-packed science-fiction adventure story, that pushes the envelope by making us ask ourselves what has to be true to call something "real."

This novel is the first by Rebeccah Rowe, but I suspect -- and hope -- it will not be the last. While this story can easily stand alone, I am betting that it is just the beginning of a series. The Imagofas, and the complex future they inhabit, will be fertile ground for many stories to come.

by Chris McCallister
24 March 2007

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