Sam is a young female agent of the Homeland Security Emerging Risks Directorate, a somewhat fanatical branch of US enforcement which has been set up to combat the perceived threat of illegal human enhancements. Sam is on the trail of a brilliant student, Kaden Lane, who has modified what used to be Nexus 3 into Nexus 5, a nanotechnological substance which can allow the connection of minds with other users.
Sam, ironically, has been not only physically enhanced by her department but has had a whole other personality complete with memories overlaid over her own. Having successfully made contact with Lane she gets herself invited to a Nexus 5 party. Sam is overwhelmed by the beautiful communion of minds that her cover personality begins to deteriorate. The ERD raid the party and Lane is taken away.
There’s a bit of a cliché here. Hard-arse authoritarians tell the prisoner (Lane) that all his friends can stay in jail and that he himself will get a hefty sentence unless he does a job for the hard-arse authoritarians.
Sam and Lane are sent to a conference in Thailand where Lane attracts the attention of several parties, one of them being a woman the ERD are interested in; a Chinese scientist rumoured to be experimenting with Nexus and other transhumanist technologies.
I would describe this as a Good Book. It zips along fairly swiftly, is a captivating read and builds to an exciting and satisfactory denouement. In many ways it is reinventing the concept of Homo Superior by enhancing Humanity with a nanotechnological software that bonds with its host and becomes permanent part of the body.
Naam goes further by suggesting that Nexus 5 can be passed on in some case to children who grow up able to share the thoughts of other Nexus users.
Being a Good Book though is no guarantee that it’s a good novel. This achieved the shortlist of the 2014 Arthur C Clarke award which surprises me since it does have its flaws. Naam seems to be putting forward an argument in favour of transhumanism by looking at the positive benefits, the negative effects, the political consequences in personal and wider social terms and the very real dangers. All well and good. What slightly undermines this is the Marvel comic characterisation.
The people of the ERD are painted as obsessive, irrational and illogical. Becker, in charge of the mission, is a sociopathic control freak whose motivation seems based on a fear of his teenage daughters being given some form of Nexus. There does need to be some light and shade here since the impression one gets is that the author is deeply distrustful of the American government and his doing his utmost to paint them in a bad light. A little subtlety would have improved this aspect no end.
Kaden Lane, the central character, makes the stupidest decisions in the world, usually without asking anyone’s advice.
Sam’s journey within the novel sees her gradually turning away from her ERD masters toward lane and his Nexus 5 transhumanism. Quite unnecessarily we learn her backstory. She was brought up in a Waco-style commune that devolved into an insular world of sexual abuse and violence. Naam could have made more of the comparisons between Sam’s repressed childhood memories and the overlaid personalities and memories she adopts for missions.
Rather like Becker’s daughter obsession, Naam has taken one element of a character’s life as the one defining factor in their behaviour. It’s a tad too formulaic and tends to detract from the ongoing storyline.
Naam comes into his own when the narrative shifts to Thailand. There appears to be a free market for wetware and enhancements and it is not long before lane finds himself to be a person of interest for at least three separate groups, each of whom wants to use Nexus 5 for their own purposes.
The denouement is, as I have said, exciting and dare I say it, a little transcendent, paving the way for the inevitable sequels.
It is undoubtedly a Good Book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more. Whether or not it should have been in the Clarke Award shortlist is another matter. I would have expected a little more depth.
‘Scobie Redfern was just a nice good-looking American young man who had never heard of such things as Portals, parallel worlds and Trugs. So when someone materialised in his apartment with the Trugs in hot pursuit, it all seemed sort of a funny game. But there was nothing amusing about it once the monsters themselves arrived.
For it wasn’t long before Scobie was himself running for his life from world to world and from Portal to Portal just to keep one jump ahead of the Trugs and hoping that THE WIZARDS OF SENCHURIA might, just might, be able to get him back home alive and whole!’
Blurb from the 12140 Ace Double 1969 paperback edition.
This is one of a series of books Bulmer wrote which feature ‘portals’ between worlds. Certain humans are mutant ‘porteurs ‘ who can sense the presence of these gates and open them.
Scobie Redfern is a fairly ordinary Manhattan guy who gets into a cab one winter night only to find that a large man has entered the other passenger door. Before any argument can start the stranger who appears worried agrees to ride to the restaurant Scobie was heading for.
The stranger, however, is being followed by monstrous creatures called Trugs, who now have Scobie’s scent. His only hope is to follow the stranger and some of his friends through a portal to another world. So begins Scobie’s adventure.
In structure it reads very much like the work of Otis Adelbert Kline since Scobie moves from place to place; at first becoming a slave in in one of the mines of the Contessa, the arch-villain of the piece. He escapes with the help of his fellow-slaves and a young porteur called Val and they escape to another world only to find themselves trapped in the city of the Wizards of Senchuria.
One gets the impression that Bulmer – much as Otis Adelbert Kline did – was making it up as he went along without much thought for the eventual outcome.
The ending is particularly silly as Scobie has decided that the Senchurians – despite the fact they enslaved him and fed on his emotions – are not such bad eggs after all and agrees to help them in their fight against invading beasties from yet another dimension.
All Redfern has to do is obtain a super-weapon from another world two dimensions down the road, which he does with surprising alacrity. The Contessa appears at this point, a Disney Witch figure, cackling from within an impregnable sphere of force. Her come-uppance will need to wait for another day.
I’ve always been intrigued as to what deep-seated psychological need is satisfied by the presence of aristocratic or Royal titles and figures in SF. The Galactic Empire, for instance, is a popular rabbit to pull out of the SF hat and often assumes a feudal system with the Empress/Emperor at the top of the tree and the riff raff at the bottom.
Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ is the most famous Galactic Empire example because the books focus on ‘The Empire’ as an entity, examining its political and social demise and planned resurrection.
The ethics of this feudal system are never explained.
Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ paints something far more believable. The concept of Royalty in Space has long been in the visual media from the time of Flash Gordon and Emperor Ming, along with Star Wars, Babylon Five, ‘Stargate ‘ along with its TV spinoffs and all the other formulaic space opera clones that get churned out season after season.
It also turns up in these borderline Science Fantasy epics from the likes of Lois McMaster Bujold and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Is it that we have some innate psychological need for drama featuring class systems and aristocratic titles?
This book, like most others featuring titles, royalty and feudal systems is very much on the Romantic side of the genre. There’s a great deal of fighting alien beasties and general derring do and not really enough of the derring don’t.
Priest has created a compelling alternate history steampunk world where the basic premise is that in Seattle in the early days of the American Civil War, Leviticus Blue, a renowned inventor, created a revolutionary new drilling machine. This is the Boneshaker, designed to drill into the hardest permafrost in a bid to strike gold in the frozen wilds. One day, seemingly for no reason, Blue takes the machine on a rampage beneath the city which not only collapses cellars and buildings but releases a deadly mist from the Earth.
Seattle is evacuated and a great wall built around the city to confine the gas, known as The Bight. During the somewhat hurried exodus, Blue’s father-in-law, Maynard Wilkes, releases prisoners from a local jail who would otherwise have been left to die.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar, is coping with bringing up her son Ezekiel while working at a gruelling job where all her colleagues object to the widow of Levi Blue working with them.
Zeke, as he is known, is obsessed with discovering the truth behind his father’s actions. Having discovered that there are still people living within the walls – albeit in sealed off tunnels or buildings supplied with air by ceaseless pumping mechanisms – he runs off to try and enter the city and return to his parents’ house.
Briar, having discovered his note, has no choice but to go after him and attempt to get him out alive. There are worse things to worry about than the deadly gas itself it appears as one of its properties is to animate the dead, converting them to ravening flesh-eating zombies or ‘rotters’ as they are known here.
Priest, to her credit, does an excellent job of combining steampunk, alternate history and zombies in what is – given the bald synopsis above – a bit of a far-fetched notion.
However, it all works remarkably well, structured in a dual narrative following Zeke and Briar alternately as they roam the rotter-infested ruins of Seattle where the inventions of Levi Blue have been adapted to produce various instruments of defence and survival.
There’s a cast of extraordinary characters such as Lucy, a low-tech cyborg bar owner who has had her arms replaced with functioning mechanical replacements (thinking about it, it would have been a neat touch to call her bar ‘The Clockwork Arms’) and the sinister Captain Nemo-esque Dr Minnericht who never removes his mask and runs a small empire from his marble and brass underground headquarters.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that Priest does not explore the mutant birds further, since the blackbirds in the city seem to have evolved some form of gestalt consciousness. They are mentioned in passing, but nothing more is made of them, at least in this novel.
There are sequels so maybe we may learn more of these strange denizens of Seattle.
As of the time of posting, ‘Boneshaker’ has been optioned by Hammer for a movie adaptation and a screenplay is underway.