The latest installment of Linda Nagata’s Inverted Frontier series, Needle, dropped last week, so of course I had to immediately move it to the top of the reading list. This is far future space opera, but with hard(ish) science fiction bent. Unlike typical space opera, there is no faster than light travel, so no galactic empires as such.
The lack of FTL in this universe is made up for by humanity having mastered nanotechnology, enabling mind uploading and copying, and the construction of new bodies on demand. So everyone is effectively immortal. Although it’s a dangerous universe with plagues, wars, alien berserkers, malevolent god-like entities, and other hazards that prevent most people from living indefinitely.
As humanity spreads throughout the local region of the galaxy, they watch from a distance as the oldest core systems erect vast megastructures called “cordons”, something like Dyson spheres, which hide their stars from the rest of the galaxy. But several centuries later, these structures, referred to as the “Hallowed Vastries”, disappear, apparently due to catastrophic events.
But humanity beyond the core systems has its own struggles. A fleet of automated alien warships lay waste to the outer colonies. (These warships and their origin are the focus of Nagata’s earlier novel: Vast.) By the start of the Inverted Frontier series, it’s not clear how much of humanity is actually left.
The series is a about of group of people from an insulated colony who set out to travel back to the central systems and find out what happened, and to get an idea of how many humans, if any, remain. There is a large cast of characters, but the central ones remain Urban and Clementine, two compelling characters from Nagata’s earlier Nanotech Succession series.
The first two books in the series chronicle the journey to the edge of the core systems, the group’s encounter with a powerful superhuman entity named Lezuri, and the artificial world from Nagata’s earlier novel, Memory. In this third book, the crew has reached the first of the core systems, Tanjiri, a solar system filled with the ruins of the earlier megastructures, but with what appear to be three artificial worlds in the inner solar system, a planet and its moon, both with apparently healthy ecosystems, and an artificial habitat city of some kind.
It’s tough to go much further without getting into spoilers. I’ll just note some concepts included in the story. One is the creation of a person to solve a particular problem, an act regarded as unethical and dangerous by most of the crew, and one with unintended consequences throughout the story. Another is a forest that grows in vacuum and with limited sunlight in the outer solar system.
And of course nanotechnology features prominently throughout, with machines and spaceships grown as needed, not to mention human bodies (avatars). The interstellar craft in the story are all powered by alien technologies that amount to magic, but the interplanetary shuttles have to grow new booster stages and fuel to leave deep gravity wells.
A core feature of the entire series is Urban and the others’ control of one of the alien berserker ships. The ship mind is a vast network of neuron-like cells that function much like a human brain. The characters control the ship by introducing and promoting propositions into the mind that they want to see enacted, and countering and inhibiting ones they don’t want. The dynamics seem to function in a very global workspace type fashion, in particular like Daniel Dennett’s multiple drafts variant. Before the story is over, these dynamics play a crucial role.
As in the earlier books, one thing that pervades throughout is a sense of vastness and wonder. Nagata in a blog post once noted that while most space opera essentially plays down the enormity of interstellar distances, she emphasizes and celebrates it in her stories. As an author who lives in Hawaii, it’s tempting to wonder if the ancient Polynesian worldview doesn’t play a role in her settings, that of a people scattered in isolated pockets across a vast ocean, with uncertain communications and no central authority. Nagata’s future universe feels like that on an interstellar scale.
I’ve noted many times before that Nagata is an underappreciated talent. Her fiction is just as mind bending as anything I’ve read from big name authors, often much more so. That said, most of her stories aren’t action filled extravaganzas, but thoughtful and haunting explorations along the borders of humanity and what it might become.
If this description sounds enticing, I highly recommend the series. I don’t think you want to start with this book, but with the first one in the Inverted Frontier series, Edges. And her earlier novel, Vast, is definitely worth considering.