1995’s The Bohr Maker was Linda Nagata’s debut novel, followed eight months later by Tech Heaven, which shares a common background with The Bohr Maker. Two strong novels in the course of a year is an effective way to get my attention; how annoying that I would then have to wait until 1997 for her third novel….
Many are those who revere Kirstin Adair, Chief of the Commonwealth Police, for her unending efforts to protect Mother Earth from the threats posed to Gaea by modern nanotechnology (or makers). Few of those admirers revere her quite as energetically as Kirstin adores herself.
Nikko Jiang-Tibayan is an outlier. Even though he sometimes shares Kirstin’s bed, he is not among those who admire her ideals. He himself is an example of just the sort of tampering in god’s domain that the Commonwealth’s laws were intended to eradicate.
And while Nikko was temporarily granted a waiver allowing him to exist at all, that waiver had a time limit—and that time limit is about to run out.
Not to worry! Nikko has a cunning plan.
To survive, Nikko needs to get his hands on the Bohr Maker, an ingenious but extremely illegal form of nanotechnology. The Bohr Maker does not so much circumvent the laws limiting artificial intelligence as completely ignore them; the police, required by law to stick to legal nanotechnology, would be hard pressed to contain anyone using the Bohr Maker.
Alas for Nikko, his plan has gone off the rails even before the book begins. The agent he sends to acquire the Maker has managed to get himself battered to death in one of Earth’s more disreputable slum cities. Even worse, Phousita, an illiterate former prostitute struggling to keep herself and her clan of abused street children alive, is exposed to the Bohr Maker. The replicators embrace their new host.
Ignorant Phousita, denied an education by her exploitative society, interprets the effects of the Maker as a curse and in a sense she is right: not only is Nikko determined to find her but so is Kirstin. Whereas Nikko merely wants access to the Bohr Maker technology, Kirstin will go to great lengths to keep what she sees as an infection from spreading. Unlike Nikko, Kirstin can wield nuclear weapons.
Although my copy is pretty dog-eared I had not reread this in years and years. On rereading I can see some signs that this is a first novel, chief among which is the over-the-top main antagonist. Kirstin isn’t just a nuke-wielding fanatic; she’s a self-aggrandizing fanatic who uses her power to blackmail her opponents into having sex with her. Not someone who presents her point of view in a sympathetic way.
Which isn’t to say Nikko and his clan of billionaires plotting to remake society and ecosystems without much concern for the people living in said society and ecosystems are much more sympathetic than their great enemy Kirstin. Well, Nikko’s naive brother Sandor seems nice enough, but he’s mostly a catspaw. Otherwise, picking sides between the fanatical cop and her vainglorious opponents is tough.
It’s just as well Phousita is as much a protagonist as Nikko and Kirstin, because Phousita, as limited as she is by a lifetime of poverty and exploitation, at least considers factors beyond her own immediate gain, the good of people other than herself. This really isn’t true of Nikko, Kirstin, or their supporters.
I tend to regard nanotechnology as used in SF as another word for magic. Nagata’s makers are constrained by available matter and by programming; the technology is powerful but not omnipotent.
Despite the rough edges, I enjoyed revisiting this mid-1990s SF thriller and am now considering a run at the other books in this series (Tech Heaven, Deception Well, and Vast, which I remember as the best in the series). Readers interested in this novel and other books in the series can obtain them from the author’s own Mythic Island Press.