I have a bad habit of buying ebooks and then letting them sit in my Kindle account unread, sometimes for years. I’m sorry to say that the book that was in this state the longest was Linda Nagata’s Vast. I picked it up back in 2011 based on Alastair Reynold’s glowing recommendation. However, when I started reading it, I discovered it was the third book in a series, The Nanotech Succession, so I picked up the first book in the series and started reading it instead, but for some reason never finished it, and so never made it back to Vast.
Recently, Nagata announced that she was returning to the universe of Vast. I read the preview for her new book, Edges, the first installment of the new sequel series, Inverted Frontier, and quickly decided to pre-order it. I then decided it was time to rectify never having read Vast.
This is a novel which explores a huge range of concepts. It’s set in a future where mind copying is possible. Characters can create “ghosts” of themselves who can operate in computer systems, can grow new bodies on demand, can integrate memories from their ghosts as needed, can spawn new copies of themselves to explore or work on things, and generally don’t have to worry about death from old age.
Many of the characters have bodies that can withstand the vacuum of space, including a tough scaled skin and an additional organ, called a kisheer, that allows them to breath when outside of a spaceship. Other characters have additional posthuman modifications.
But this isn’t a utopian future by any stretch of the imagination. In the backstory to the book (and perhaps covered in the earlier books in the series) human society expanded into interstellar space while building Dyson swarms around the solar system and other central systems. These vast structures and the societies within them were referred to as the Hallowed Vastries.
By the time of Vast, the Hallowed Vastries are in the distant past, destroyed as society apparently crumbled, a result of a plague called the “cult virus”, an infection that on the surface seems benign, causing those infected to join in communal cults of love and fellowship, but apparently destroying the initiative and motivation that makes a civilization work.
In addition, humanity has come under attack from a fleet of alien ships, given the name Chenzeme by humans. These automated ships have attacked frontier worlds and devastated humanity, with only a few pockets of survivors remaining.
One of those pockets is on a world called Deception Well. Deception Well exists in a nebula with ancient and alien nanotech that protects against the Chenzeme. However, it apparently does not protect against the cult virus.
As the book opens, four characters are on a ship called the Null Boundary, having set out from Deception Well on a quest to learn the origin of the Chenzeme ships. They are heading in the direction of the interstellar cloud that the ships appear to come from. However, they have picked up a pursuer, a Chenzeme attack ship.
This is relatively hard science fiction, so there is no faster than light travel. The Null Boundary is traveling at 40% of the speed of light. And the pursuit from the Chenzeme vessel has already lasted for decades. The story stretches out across centuries in a chase through interstellar space.
Some of the characters have children, grown from constructed embryos, who go on to become adults during the decades and centuries of the story. One character rarely exists physically, preferring to live as a ghost. Another routinely alters his cognition, editing his emotions, banning fear or other unpleasant feelings.
But the most haunting character is Lot. Lot is a carrier of the cult virus. Indeed, he is actually a genetically engineered weapon designed to distribute the cult virus, an alien modification of a classic human. The engineering in his body makes it impossible for him to create ghosts. Alone among the characters, he is stuck in one body. He yearns to achieve communion with others, but in the story is often consigned to be alone. Lot’s burdens become central to the plot.
Obviously there’s a lot going on in this book, and I’m just scratching the surface. True to the title of the series, nanotech features heavily in the story, with a lot of the action happening on the microscopic scale, with battles that often feel like competing infections.
As I noted, this isn’t the first book in the series, and you definitely get the idea that the characters have a lot of history before the book opens. But the books in the series are described as being stand-alone, so it’s not strictly necessary to read them in order. I didn’t feel like skipping the others detracted from my experience of this story. That said, I do hope to go back and read the earlier books at some point.
Although she had some limited success in traditional publishing (this book was originally published in the 1990s), Nagata had largely given up on writing until recent years. I find her struggles puzzling, since her vision is as compelling as many better known authors. Reynolds, in his recommendation, cites her as an influence for his own Revelation Space books. She seems an underappreciated talent, exactly the type of author who has benefited from the self publishing revolution.
This is not an action filled tale. Much of the conflict in the story is psychological. It’s a haunting and thought filled exploration of this posthuman and alien world. But if you like books filled with mind bending concepts, I highly recommend it.
13 thoughts on “Recommendation: Vast”
Virtual hug! Great timing. Just finished your last recommendation (Soldier), knocked over Reed’s latest short last night (which was far too *short*) and woke to this day book-naked and looking for something to wear/read.
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I forgot about Reed. I need to swing back around to his stuff.
Did you enjoy Soldier?
I did. Looking forward to May for next chapter. Reed finally put out Dragons of Marrow, the next full Great Ship book. It’s a wild, wild ride. It even comes with a warning that it’s only for the brave Marrow fan. I’ve read it twice so far and am still happily baffled by bits.
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That sounds quite interesting, I’ll have to add her to my reading list.
I know what you mean about letting ebooks sit for a long time. I have quite a few myself waiting for me to be in a reading mood. I’ve been reading C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series — there’s, I think, eight trilogies (and counting); I’m only in the third one. Working on some Greg Egan and David Brin, too.
I did finally finish the Thomas Covenant series. The last 500 pages were a chore, and I was disappointed by the ending. Possibly the damndest story I’ve ever read, and I’d include Infinite Jest (or anything Ellison ever wrote) in that. Serious love-hate relationship with that series.
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Since you like Egan, it might be right up your alley.
I tried Cherryh decades ago, but found her viewpoints too limited. In ‘Downbelow Station’, we’re only privy to what the POV character is immediately perceiving, not what they know more broadly. It’s a technique she calls “intense third person” that I don’t care for. It’s frustrating because I find the descriptions of her books captivating.
Would you read Covenant again if you knew then what you know now? I know I’ve read series over the years where I definitely wouldn’t. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy comes to mind. (The movie Annihilation was *much* better than the books.) Or any Dune book after the original. (Although I now understand the reason for Dune Messiah; people needed to see the underbelly of what happened in Dune.)
The Foreigner books are told strictly from the (third party) POV of the main character.
Do you not like being in the dark about what’s going on with other characters? It does make for a different story. More life-like in some ways. I remember how Nicholas Roeg, the filmmaker, had a philosophy about his films that one doesn’t know everything in life so likewise his films. Made them kind of confusing sometimes, but so is life, I guess.
To the extent one reads for escape from real life, that can be annoying.
“Would you read Covenant again if you knew then what you know now?”
I would. I already have, when it comes to the first two trilogies.
There is so much depth, and so much that resonates once you see what Donaldson is saying (which isn’t always easy), that they’re worth the effort, I think.
These, too, are told strictly from the third party POV of the main character(s), Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery. (The narrative does jump to Linden’s son a few times in the last books of the last series.)
Something that didn’t occur to me until the last book is that Donaldson is an unreliable narrator. Or rather, his characters’ minds are unreliable. They go off on dark mental paths — repeatedly — until you want to slap them.
What I never realized (Donaldson never explicitly says so) is that the main villain, Lord Foul, is in their minds causing these thoughts.
Once I realized it, it was really obvious. That’s exactly how Foul works. One of his names is Corruption, and his insidious nature has caused major disaster in The Land more than once. Donaldson tells you many times about how it happens; he just never points out it’s happening to his characters.
And then it’s all very metaphorical. Lord Foul, the Despiser, Corruption, is our ugly inner nature; that’s what Donaldson is exploring. (Part of the difficulty reading is Donaldson can make you confront your own inner ugly.)
But, yeah, much as I hate them, I love them. Amazing books. In some ways, some of the best SF I’ve ever read.
I have read the other Dune books (but won’t again). OTOH, I re-read Dune itself every decade or so.
I’m actually fine with third person limited, and enjoy how limiting our perspective to particular characters can be used for dramatic tension and to convey things about the viewpoint character’s worldview. Used correctly, it can bring us as close to the viewpoint character as first person.
What I don’t like about Cherryh’s technique is that only something that is in the character’s current stream of consciousness is included. So if they’re in front of something whose details I as the reader would like to know, but because it’s familiar to the POV character they’re not currently dwelling on those details, Cherryh won’t relay them. And that I find immensely frustrating, particularly in a science fiction setting.
In my view, this extremely limited POV actually distances me from the viewpoint character. They know things I don’t know. I’m not really in their head, only their very limited immediate perceptions. And it prevents me from visualizing the scene. In my view, it’s a cheap trick to hide information from the reader, information obvious to the characters. I’d rather the author just use third person objective (also known as third person cinematic), where at least they can relate details of the scene that we’d see in a movie or play.
Cherryh’s a popular author, so obviously a lot of people enjoy her technique. I wish it didn’t turn me off so much, because her books always sound fascinating.
“Used correctly, it can bring us as close to the viewpoint character as first person.”
(Just to be clear, although others may use it poorly, you’re not implying Cherryh’s use is incorrect. It’s that you don’t care for it, yes?)
“And that I find immensely frustrating, particularly in a science fiction setting.”
Okay, I see what you’re saying. I’m fine with it, and — as you said — it’s an intentional choice on her part. It definitely creates a certain tone of alienation.
You mentioned “intense” and I would add “immediate,” that focus on the now. Her stories move along nicely (for me) and feel very present. I don’t feel distanced, more caught up.
This seems like a personal preferences thing, what we want to see from a character versus what the storyteller gives us. For me, I have to like and respect a character to embrace them. I have almost no tolerence for Idiot Clowns. But many regard the Three Stooges (and others) as comedy genius.
I don’t see it as a “cheap trick” but as a style choice. (One I enjoy.) But compared to a kind of storytelling “norm” Cherryh… isn’t. Definitely a strong flavor, so to speak, and I can see why readers wouldn’t find it as tasty as I do. (Ever had horehound candy? I like that, too! 🙂 )
“Cherryh’s a popular author, so obviously a lot of people enjoy her technique.”
She’s among my favorites. She does good aliens. I find her prose rich. Sometimes I have to read paragraphs several times to squeeze the meaning out of them. She can be very subtle and nuanced in how her characters think and interact. That mystery you speak of is part of the fun for me!
It’s definitely a personal preference thing. I just remember being tired of not knowing, at a basic level, what was going on. It was like being on the phone with someone describing events over a noisy one way connection. You know what’s happening in terms of what the other person thinks to tell you, but a lot of basic information is missing.
That said, it might be worth me trying Cherryh again at some point. A lot of things that bothered me when I was younger aren’t as big a deal these days. Maybe her technique wouldn’t annoy me as much now.
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I’m glad I’m not the only one who leaves stuff sitting forever on his Kindle. I always feel just a little bit guilty buying new books when I know how many I still haven’t read.
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At least now it’s hidden away where people can’t see them. One of my college friends, after observing that I could’ve started my own library, asked if I actually read all of the books I had. I had to admit that I had read most but not all of them.
At least when I was younger, lack of money kept it under control. Once I was an adult and could spend my money however I liked, the number of books I hadn’t read bloated up, until a few years ago when I finally conducted a purge. Getting rid of books, like the one on US military involvement in Russia after World War I, wasn’t easy, but it was clear I was never going to actually read them.
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