Steven Gould’s latest novel 7th Sigma is his best since Jumper, and while it shares Jumper’s excellent pace and likable characters, it is otherwise as totally unlike Jumper as it could be, except in the field of overall awesomeness, which it has in spades.
In 7th Sigma, the American southwest has experienced a unique apocalypse: out of nowhere, artificial lifeforms called “bugs” have appeared. These tiny robotic flying insects home in on any source of metal or EMF and devour them, budding off more bugs using the digested metals. Their geometric reproduction quickly lays waste to the southwest and all who live there — especially people with metal pins in their joints, or pacemakers — since the bugs are capable of tunneling through solid rock or flesh to get at the metal within. Now the southwest is a frontier again, where small villages eke out a life alongside fields and arroyos that glitter with the photovoltaic wings of the mysterious bugs. Only the bugs’ aversion to water has stopped them from devouring the whole planet: as soon as they reach the edge of the desert and the more humid, moist territories, they begin to die off.
This sets the stage for a wonderful genre mashup: a science fiction/western, set in the new frontier, inhabited by ranchers, farmers, banditos, native Americans, and the law. But though this frontier is populated by the familiar set-dressing of the western — horses and corrals, cowboy hats and adobe — it is also full of high-tech polymers and ceramics imported from beyond the border. There is no Internet, but a network of Qwest heliographics will transmit your urgent messages to the border, where they’ll be rekeyed into an email and fired off to their recipients. There are no six-guns, but there are disposable cardboard rifles that fire gravel or ceramics, and, of course, ceramic crossbows with marvelous optics.
Enter the characters: Kim is a runaway who escaped to the frontier when his abusive father was airlifted out (by a skyhook attached to a nonmetallic balloon, of course) because his metal pacemaker would have doomed him. Kim was supposed to follow his father, but instead, he’s escaped to the streets of New Santa Fe, where he lives by his wits. And then he meets Ruth, an Aikido sensei who is off to found a new dojo deep in the territory, and the two adopt one another.
Kim and Ruth go through the arduous task of establishing the dojo in the rough frontier, overcoming natural and human adversity, and Kim’s training brings him both calm and physical mastery. So when events conspire to put Kim in the position of saving a neighbor from bandits, he comes into contact with one of the Rangers who has responsibility for the territory, a Ranger who recognizes him as a runaway. But instead of sending him back to his abusive father, the lawman inducts Kim as an undercover agent, and there begins the adventure in earnest. As Kim gets older and more proficient, he becomes one of the frontier’s greatest undercover cops, and gets closer and closer to unraveling the mystery of the bugs.
This is sheer adventure, and it’s full of engaging, nerdily detailed depictions of the minutiae of Aikido, spycraft, artificial life theory, frontier economics, religious zealotry, Zen meditation, as well as beautiful and evocative descriptions of the southwestern landscape. It’s clearly the first volume of a longer series, and it has the true pulp adventure serial spirit, the compulsively consumable zing that’ll have you turning pages long past your bedtime.
Though the book has a young adult protagonist, it’s not being marketed as YA, probably because it has the occasional F-bomb. But this is the kind of book that will engage adults and kids, provided you don’t subscribe to the weird philosophy that says kids who read the F-word are permanently corrupted.