I’m a long-time fan of Steven Gould. Back when I was willing to have a single favourite author, he was it. Now that I no longer attempt such rankings, his work still holds a special place in my heart. For a long time, Gould was one of the best science fiction authors you haven’t heard of. Since his first novel, Jumper, in 1992, he kept steadily at it, publishing a new book every couple of years. But fans have been waiting awhile for something new. Since Reflex in 2004, we haven’t really had a new Gould novel (unless you count the movie tie-in, Griffin’s Story, which I’m not inclined to).
But this is definitely something new. Set in the harsh frontier life of the Territory, 7th Sigma imagines a large swath of the American Southwest returning forcibly to its roots, while the outside world more or less continues on. The incident that changed everything was the mysterious appearance of the bugs. Small, beetle-like, these faux insects are apparently unexceptional save for two things: they are solar-powered and made entirely of metal, and they will go through anything or anyone to find the raw material to build more of themselves. It sounds somewhat like a nanotech gone wrong, attack of the grey goo kind of story, but without the nanotech. Actually, depending on how you read it, the bugs may be at the heart of the story, or just be a means to an end.
The end is that we have a future frontier setting, where the inability to use metal-based technology results in some very old technologies mixing with the very new: human- and animal-powered farming and transportation, communication by hand-delivery of mail or Morse signalling, stone-aged tools like obsidian knives or flint-tipped arrows, along with advanced polymers and composites, designed specifically for the Territory.
Of course, whenever you have limited infrastructure, you have a certain degree of lawlessness, and a certain degree of people being left to fend for themselves. This is the essence of what it is to be on the frontier. Add in occasional elements of high technology, and you have the essential sci-fi frontier story; in Gould’s case, this means Territorial Rangers who utilize satellite surveillance in conjunction with mounted troops and hand-to-hand combat to keep the peace. It’s a very similar set-up to what sci-fi authors have accomplished in the past by imagining colonization of untamed new planets. For that matter, it’s a similar set-up to 19th century adventure tales set in real-life contemporary frontier towns, be it the Wild West, or perhaps Africa or the Far-East. In fact, Gould makes no secret that his story is an intentional retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, which was set in colonial India, between Afghan Wars. Gould even has a minor character refer to his Kimbell as Kipling’s Kimbull, as a wink to the reader familiar with the original.
This also means that the structure of the novel is more or less set. Just as readers of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book would know the ending if they knew their Kipling, some readers of Gould’s latest may know Kimbell’s path through 7th Sigma in advance. Gould makes a point of parallelling most of the major characters and arcs from Kipling’s book. That explains why, at times, the book reads more like a magazine serial than a novel. Just as in the original, the book covers a series of adventures, while the overarching theme is secondary to the plot of the moment.
Since this is clearly a deliberate choice, I won’t weigh in on it either way, but some readers may feel the book meanders as a result. They may also feel that we don’t get enough at the mystery of the bugs. The book’s ending leaves things very open-ended, potentially setting up for a sequel, or possibly just mimicing the ending of Kim, which was also open to interpretation (though there was no mystery of robotic bugs).
Since he lives in New Mexico and has practiced aikido for decades, Gould knows whereof he speaks on these topics. As in his previous novel, Helm, the discipline and application of this martial art is a major aspect of the book, and also as in that novel, his description of it here makes it sound extremely cool. It’s also obvious that he put a lot of thought into what a region without metal, but access to all our other modern technology and organization might look like. He gives humanity credit, by assuming whatever the hardship, wherever we can live, we will live.
7th Sigma does what any classic adventure tale does: it describes a very scary and dangerous world in believable detail, while simultaneously making the reader wish they could go adventuring there themselves. Although I would have preferred a little more focus on the deeper science fictional aspects of his world and a little less on the narrative connection to Kim, I can’t deny the inherent readability of this book. It’s much lighter in tone and content than Gould’s other works, and may not stick as much with you after you put it down, but I defy you not to devour the whole thing in a weekend.