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.