Vast (Linda Nagata)
This issue’s review is courtesy of Martin Wisse
Space opera used to be terrible, reactionary stories of brawny male heroes with safe Anglo-Saxon names making the galaxy safe for Terran manifest destiny by cheerfully genociding any alien races looking at them funny. Long derided as the lowest of the low, though with the occasional saving grace in the form of that elusive “sense of wonder” all science fiction strives to achieve, it was sort of rehabilitated in the seventies by a generation of fans and writers who’d grown up reading the stuff. In the eighties and nineties this led to the so-called New Space Opera, which took that sense of wonder and removed the xenophobia and human supremacy from it. Though in this New Space Opera the universe was far more indifferent to human pretensions than the old stuff, it could still be upbeat, as in e.g. Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, where hundreds of various human races live happily ever after in an AI-controlled utopia.
But not always. In Linda Nagata’s Vast, the universe is not just indifferent, but actively hostile to human life. A millions years old alien war has left still active, automated warships behind, warships capable of blowing up suns. As humanity moved out of the Solar System and established colonies around other stars, these Chenzeme ships started to attack. One such attack has left only four survivors, fleeing the attack aboard the Null Boundary, a slower-than-light spaceship, who have decided to go look for the source of the Chenzeme coursers, somewhere in the swan direction of the Orion arm of the galaxy, all the while being chased by a Chenzeme courser themselves.
Vast is therefore one long chase scene, taking places over centuries of travel time as the Null Boundary moves further into the Orion Arm. It reminded me somewhat of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and sequels, which also partially took place aboard vast, ancient slower-than-light ships moving between star systems. There’s the same feeling of claustrophobia and isolation, though Nagata’s characters are much more strange than Reynolds’.
There’s Lot, infected by the alien Cult virus, which basically makes him want to infect everybody he meets to let them join in a brotherhood of cosmic love. Unfortunately for him, everybody on the ship is immune to him, which means he has no outlets for his urge to infect. It’s unclear where the virus came from, whether it’s related to the Chenzeme or, as some of the characters speculate, their hypothetical enemy.
Then there’s Nikko, the owner of the Null Boundary who most of the time remains within the ship’s systems, only occasionally downloading himself into a meat body and who, during the long centuries where nothing happens, tends to wipe his own memories every ninety seconds, living in minute and a half loops unless something interesting happens.
The two remaining passengers on the Null Boundary are Urban and Clemantine, the most normal and human looking, but like Nikko, each of them can upload and save their memories to the ship’s systems, re-downloading into new bodies when needed. Thanks to the cult virus, Lot can’t and is therefore condemned to spending a lot of time in cold sleep. He and Clemantine used to be lovers, but when she was still vulnerable, he infected her with the virus, which put a bit of a strain on their relationship. Now she’s cured but none of the other three trust Lot all that much, suspicious of his virus induced pacifistic leanings.
Vast is a psychological drama, where the questions of where the Chenzeme came from, or what their goals were, are never quite answered, but the focus is in how Lot and all deal with their long voyage towards an answer, change and evolve during their journey. It’s not entirely successful, as other than Lot, the characters remain largely two dimensional, not quite convincing. Nikko and Urban especially come across more as a collection of tics and responses than as real people.
Vast is an excellent example of the new hard space opera, playing “fair” with the laws of physics in limiting its space ships to slower than light, while still using miracle technology in the form of nanotech, computer uploads, semi-intelligent alien viruses, not to mention functioning robot warships millions of years old. It attempts to show something of the vastness of space by emphasising how long a journey even between relatively close star systems would be, again something that isn’t entirely successful. In the end Vast provides a sort of monochrome sense of wonder, much more sober than the old, gaudy space opera of the pulps.