Needle (Inverted Frontier Book 3)

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.

16 thoughts on “Needle (Inverted Frontier Book 3)

      1. Wish I could recommend some, but I’ve run dry. Am waiting for Robert Reed’s next Great Ship novel… which I’m giddy about getting my hands on.

        Haven’t read Inverted yet, but that’s only because I’m trying to keep my head down (and focused) on finally finishing a sci-fi piece I’m writing. I sent your last blog review to her directly on Twitter, and she loved it. Do it for this one, and tag her. She’ll be thrilled beyond measure.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks for reminding me about Reed. I need to get back to his stuff.

          I’m intrigued to hear about your sci-fi piece. I’ll keep an eye out.

          I generally don’t tag people whose stuff I review, although I’m fine if others do. I don’t want to put any obligation on them to read it or reply. And sometimes I have negative remarks in these posts. If I knew I’d be sharing it with the writer themselves, it would inhibit those remarks. Just my own hang ups. That said, thanks for sharing the last one with her!

          Liked by 2 people

          1. It’s a comedy. One of the first lines is something I think you’ll understand.

            Panpsychism is a fact. The fact that Panpsychism is a fact took the days leading panpsychists by complete surprise.

            Liked by 2 people

  1. I think it was you who turned me on to Nagata, and I agree with your assessment of her strengths. Thanks for the notice. Good point about Polynesia, wide-scattered populations, and space. An interstellar civilization would be like an archipelago on steroids.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Paul. Glad you’re enjoying her stuff.

      Yeah, it strikes me that the Inverted Frontier series is sort of like a group from Hawaii going back through the migration chain to Borneo, Sumatra, and Taiwan to see how things there are faring in those ancient homelands.


  2. I read Andy Weir’s The Hail Mary Project and had to ask him (and he responded) why he didn’t use an AI to run the starship? He gave some lame “only known tech” answer.
    To me, given today’s mind-blowing advances in AGI, no new hard-scifi should be written without giving substantial credence to that tech. No future space exploration will occur without it, or could occur without it.
    I’ve not even heard of Nagata, so will withhold judgement, but sure hope that things like, “it’ll take 300 years to get there, let’s take an electronic nap,” are exposed. And printing humans bodies? Why? I’d rather upload my mind into a hybrid flying octopus with a taste for tubers grown on the backs of de-extincted ankylosauruses.
    Anyway, I’ll try and hunt down one of her first and give it a whirl.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, the AI problem in science fiction is a big one. No one wants to read a story where the humans are sitting back at the base sipping lattes while updates on what the robots are doing stream back. It means authors have to come up with reasons why humans have to be involved. This goes all the way back to Frank Herbert inventing a whole ancient jihad just to get AI out of his hair. Both Neal Asher and Iain Banks use a participatory principle to have humans involved, but it always strikes me as a pretty weak rationale.

      In Nagata’s case, it’s a cultural thing where the characters prefer not to create full intelligences, and they themselves prefer the human form. They do spend a substantial amount of time as “ghosts” in virtual environments, but they’re still ghosts in (roughly) human form. If you don’t buy that, then the stories might not work for you. In that case, your best bet may be Greg Egan stories. He’s the least compromising author I’ve seen, although even he has to make compromises (normal human emotions) to keep the stories interesting.

      The earliest Nagata book I’d start with is The Bohr Maker, which is pretty good. I’m not sure about the “zeroth” book of the Nanotech Succession series: Tech Heaven. Nagata didn’t republish it in ebook form until some fans requested it, implying it may not have aged well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll check out Edges. Sounds really interesting. I like the idea of embracing the vast distances involved in interstellar travel rather than hand-waving that away. It’s not the approach I take in my own writing, but I still think it’s awesome when other writers do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy them. Interestingly, to emphasize the vast distances, she has to compromise a bit on the concepts, having characters physically travel distances rather than just transmit themselves. I can see why she does it. It’s a very different story from one where people just decide where they want to go and wake up there decades or centuries later.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you ever read any of Greg Egan’s works perchance? I would count them among the “hardest” of science fiction literature (blindsight is child’s play by comparison). Unfortunately, it’s very math heavy at times (the author has an academic background in the subject), and I sometimes feel like I need a PHD in the subject to fully follow along. He even has a website replete with detailed background literature and commentary on his books, which is usually required reading before one begins the novel in question. But the payoff is well worth the effort!

    One of his books, Dichronauts (, features a space-time topology with unique properties (an extra time dimension for example). Weird effects in this universe include objects being infinitely elongated in a certain dimension (the “people” in this universe are constrained from turning too much in this direction as a result). As well as objects sliding uphill if they are positioned on an incline less than 45 degrees and sliding downhill on an incline steeper than 45 degrees. I no longer remember why this has to be the case (I probably did a deep dive in the past on my first reading), but the author has all the math and related proofs on his website (

    Another great book of his is Schild’s ladder ( As I recall, this is one of his more accessible works, no math PhD or background reading needed to follow along! 🙂
    It explores a lot of similar themes that you referenced in your post (like post-human entities living in virtual space) and remains one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. Thanks in turn for suggesting Nagata’s works. I had never heard of her until now, but I will be sure to check out the series sometime in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely know about Egan. I’ve read a few of his books, notably Disapora and Incandescance. But I find him easier to take in novella or short story form. I particularly enjoyed his Amalgam stories. He once noted on his web site, I think in reference to a review of Incandescance, that it’s totally legitimate to expect a reader to take notes and study them to understand a story. (The reviewer obviously had a different opinion.)

      Nagata doesn’t do anything along those lines. You’ll never have to break out a science or math textbook to follow her stuff. But she does share Egan’s fascination with posthuman concepts. And she adds a lot of nanotechnology related themes. Like Egan, she manages to do it without getting too dark. (Although her stuff can definitely have dark moments.) That’s in contrast to writers like Richard K. Morgan and Hannu Rajaniemi, who really lean into the darkness. And she’s more serious than Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow.

      I actually stumbled on Nagata from a blog post by Alastair Reynolds, another author I enjoy who often dabbles in posthuman themes, although nothing like Nagata.

      I’ve heard of Schild’s Ladder, but never read it. Hearing that it’s more accessible tempts me. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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