I had two books from Tachyon Publications on my TBR shelf, which I believe are the first two Tachyon Publications books I've ever read, and both of them were unusual, which is statistically significant to me. I admired R. B. Lemberg's 'The Four Profound Leaves' a lot more than I enjoyed it, but this one is a novel that spoke to me. It felt right, from the perspective of a writer and a tech, though the fields in play here are not mine. Unger works with VR in the videogame industry and she clearly spun her field of expertise into what could be described as a first contact novel, albeit one unlike any you've read.
By sheer coincidence, I'm also binging a lot of 'Stargate-SG1' at the moment and I'd be surprised if she wasn't a big fan. On paper, there are wild similarities between the two, though the execution is wildly different. This is about punching a route from our star system to an alien star system and building a warp gate to enable instant travel between the two. We spend a lot of time back on base, where the bosses and the doctor are pivotal characters. There's a sharp female lead who's initially ignored. And there are political shenanigans higher up the chain. Does all this sound familiar?
Well, as I mentioned, the execution is wildly different. That initial hole is a small one, too small for an exploration team. What the Far Reaches Company, one of a few doing this sort of work, is sending over to Otlyan23 are eenies, tiny creatures that resemble nanobots but I presume a little bigger. Their job is to harvest local material and build things out of it, following the templates programmed into their software. Once they've built the tools needed for remote control from Earth, embedding a quantum particle to allow it, their next job is to build the warp gate that will allow things bigger than eenies to get through and milk Otlyan23's asteroid belt for everything it can.
Front and center at this point is Helen Vectorovich, who works as an operator and a very good one too. That means that she climbs into an advanced VR suit and pilots a remote arachnoid waldo on an initial structure a billion miles away. She has a partner, Ted, who's a navigator, which means that he monitors all the metrics being pumped back down that quantum connection while she's doing the manual labour part of the job, which is far more technical than that term suggests.
And, right as we begin the novel, Helen and Ted discover unforeseen problems. While the eenies are building whatever they're building, something is eating them in turn, as if they're alien eenies doing exactly the same job as our eenies, seeing them as nothing but matter to consume and spit out in the form of whatever they're building. While we're still at the nanoscale or something very small indeed, this would appear to be alien life, turning this quickly into that highly unusual first contact novel.
I liked everything about this. Well, almost. I didn't like how Kimerbly Unger likes to use ALL CAPITALS for emphasis. She reserves her use of italics for inner thoughts, so perhaps she felt that she couldn't do double duty and use them for emphasis too. She could and not doing so was a little annoying. But I liked everything else about this. I'm pretty sure that she's never probed a waldo a billion miles away from Earth, but we can absolutely tell that the VR work she does in her day job ably equips her with a mindset that makes this novel feel utterly authentic.
I liked Helen Vectorovich and I would have liked Ted, had he not been killed during the first mission to the Golfball that contains all those initial eenies. Navigator is supposed to be a safe job, unlike that of Operator, where there are risks, but it's Ted who dies and nobody believes Helen's report. Beyond the obvious need for the Far Reaches doc to take her time checking Helen out, she's unfairly sidelined by disbelief and only gradually brought back in as it becomes clear that she wasn't making shit up and it wasn't her fault that Ted died during that mission.
Rather than focus on this entirely as a first contact novel, Unger wisely takes a step back and brings in more down-to-earth, relatable concepts like professional jealousy and corporate espionage to ground everything that's going on way out there in the great beyond. Maybe Catherine Beauchamp is a little too overtly suspicious, half lead bitch of a high school clique and half heartless villain, but it's clear to everyone that she's not pulling the strings and so she works pretty well as the puppet.
I especially like how this mission is run off the rails by superiors so distant we don't even have names, just "the board". Instead of figuring out ways to address this major setback and benefit from what is surely a historic moment in space exploration, they just pull the plug on a multi-billion dollar project and shift its leads into the mode of financial damage control, spinning off Golfball from Project Line Drive and tasking the remnants of its team with prepping it for sale. And, of course, I like how those team members follow the letter of their new mission while utterly subverting the spirit of it.
It's easy to imagine how some people may not dig this as much as me, just as it's easy to imagine how some people may dig 'The Four Profound Leaves' more. This is definitely a science fiction novel for the more technologically aware reader, someone familiar with IT projects and a lot more so than those up there in the higher echelons of a massive corporation whose priorities are different. We don't need a background in quantum physics or VR tech to grasp what's going on, but we're also not going to read a traditional novel, whether first contact or any other subgenre of science fiction.
It's certainly not conventional to spend most of what could be argued as a sci-fi action novel strapped into a suit with one low-level, if highly experienced, waldo operator. Where are the dashing or rugged leading men? Not here, that's where. It's certainly not conventional for most of the action to unfold at the nanoscale. Our presence in an alien star system isn't some fancy looking spaceship but a waldo shaped like a spider that's so small that its entire world is too small for us to see without an advanced communication setup, even if it wasn't a billion miles away. It's certainly not conventional for an alien lifeform to be so alien that we can't communicate with it, let alone sleep with it because it looks cute. Sorry, Captain Kirk, not this time.
So, your level of appreciation for this may come down to what you think about my previous paragraph. If it makes it sound like this is space opera without much space or opera, then you aren't wildly wrong but this may not be a novel for you. If, on the other hand, you're salivating at the prospect of reading something completely different to the same-ol'-same-ol' sci-fi action read and you thrill at the idea of authentic mission tech, then this is highly recommended. I dug it a lot and I'd very much like to take a look at whatever Kimberly Unger comes up with next.
In fiction. I'm not keen on diving into Game Development Essentials: Mobile Game Development, the 2011 non-fiction work she co-wrote with Jeannie Novak. Suddenly I find myself in the same place that Queen Victoria found herself after reading 'Alice in Wonderland', not that that hilarious story really ever happened. But I am keen on reading Unger's next novel, hopefully published by Tachyon with a further excellent design by Elizabeth Story, this one very different to what she created for 'The Four Profound Leaves' but just as appropriate and just as effective. ~~ Hal C F Astell