Sometimes, an author’s early work is so popular that the reader and publisher demand for sequels dominates the rest of their career. Examples include Asimov and Foundation, Card and Ender, and Bujold and Miles. This list also includes Steven Gould, whose ongoing Jumper series comprises five novels to date, as well as an unfortunate movie adaptation. Indeed, of the five novels Gould has published in the 21st century, four of them have been Jumper novels.
But only four. One of them was not a Jumper novel. That novel was 2011’s 7th Sigma.
Fifty years earlier, the bugs, insectile von Neumann devices, appeared in America’s Southwest. Ravenous for metal, fecund, easily provoked, extraordinarily dangerous, the bugs quickly claimed a swath of the United States for their own. Then they halted their advance — for reasons unknown.
Within the bug-dominated Territory, any form of technology involving metal or electromagnetic radiation soon attracts bugs. Life within the zone means abandoning advanced technology (unless it involves plastics, ceramics, and composites).
That does not mean life in the zone is impossible: humans lived in that region long before radios and metal technology were available. In the era of 7th Sigma,they still do.
One such inhabitant is a seemingly unremarkable boy named Kimble, a boy living parentless by choice.
Aikido sensei Karen Monroe didn’t actually need Kimble’s help to foil a would-be thief, but the encounter confirmed her suspicion that there was more to Kimble than he was willing to let on. Despite Kimble’s evasiveness, she learns enough of his life story to convince her to trust him and to take him on as a student.
The highly episodic story follows Kimble as he matures over a number of years. The Territory attracts people who have reason to avoid the modern, connected world. Some of these people are harmless but many are not. Kimble is recruited by the Rangers who enforce the law inside the Territory; he is smart, savvy in the ways of the Territory, and appears young and unthreatening. When he is not performing short missions for the Rangers, he returns to his sensei and his life as a hard-working aikido student.
Kimble has the physical skills and the ingenuity to deal with bandits, meth heads, and other human hazards. He does not always have the necessary wisdom. Sometimes he acts out of impulse, or anger at injustice, leading to needless injury to himself or risk to others.
If criminals and religious fanatics were not enough of a challenge, there are always the enigmatic bugs. The inhabitants of the Territory think that they know enough about bugs to avoid danger, even if no one knows the why and how of their arrival. Kimble learns that there is more to the invasion than first appeared.
I should begin by saying that this book is apparently filled with allusions to Kipling’s novel Kim. I own that book, have owned it for decades, but I have never read it. That means I have to take other people’s word for the allusions. It may well be that this book would read completely differently if I had ever read Kim. So this review is for all of you folks out there who have never read this classic. Show of hands? I thought so.
This isn’t the first book I have reviewed here that references Kim. A sensible reviewer would buckle down and do their homework.
I read this book expecting there to be a moment when suddenly all of the seemingly unrelated episodes crystallized into one ongoing plot. That never happens. Kimble simply gets older, skinnier, and a little wiser over the course of the book. Now, it’s a common mistake for reviewers to ding a book for not being the book they expected, as opposed to the book the author actually wrote. I am not going to do that. I think the best way for a reader to approach this is as a collection of short stories marketed as a novel … because novels sell and single author collections, for the most part, do not.
[Editor’s note: Kim is episodic too. Most bildungsroman necessarily are. There are a fair number of SFF novels that would fit in this category. Davy and Rite of Passage come to mind. And of course Gould himself mentions Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, which he believes was also inspired by Kim. Dunno if there is any evidence for such inspiration, but many critics have noticed the resemblance.]
It will come as no surprise to anyone who read Helm that aikido and its ancillary philosophies play an important role in this book. (If you have not read Helm and you liked this, go read Helm. You will like it.) Kimble’s talent for and training with aikido are assets his opponents often do not expect. Of course, being a skilled martial artist does not mean you get automatic plot immunity to bullets and guns (unless you are a character in comics and movies).
The setting seems a bit too obviously crafted to allow the story Gould wants to tell. The bugs are unstoppable by any means humans have at their disposal and they replicate fearfully quickly. They also have for some reason1 decided to contain themselves within a specific region of the US, so their appearance was only a local disaster. This gives Gould his pleasingly retro-futuristic Old West setting, without requiring the backstory to be some sort of The Year of the Comet style apocalypse. Which is fine, but I was all too aware of the fine-tuned artifice of the settings ‚… an awareness that kept me from sinking into the story. Other people may disagree with me on this point.
I think this book is intended as an adult novel, but it’s not really any less suitable for teens than any given Heinlein juvenile. It’s true the sex is a bit more explicit2, but the undercurrents are nowhere near as unsavoury as they are in any given Heinlein novel. Teenagers may be experimenting with sex, but Gould is realistic about the consequences without being salacious or alarmist. Best of all, at no point does the phrase “husband high” ever appear.
Gould’s writing is, of course, as polished as ever. As long as you approach this as a short story collection about a bold protagonist encountering challenge after challenge, I think you will enjoy this novel. If you like Gould’s writing but have tired of his Jumper novels, you will especially enjoy this novel.
7th Sigma can be purchased in deadtree or e versions here.
1: The bugs in their current form avoid water but this aversion does not seem to explain why they stopped when they stopped. That is, the land just outside the Territory is not, as far as I could tell, notably less arid.
2: People may think of old-time SF as squeaky clean but it was not. Starman Jones, for example, has a brief aside about prostitutes rolling johns. And not for vocabulary.