Lost In Transmission by Wil McCarthy
Bantam-Spectra PPBK: ISBN 0553584472 PubDate: 03/01/04
Review by Ernest Lilley
384 pgs. List price $ 6.99
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Fans of McCarthy will enjoy this continuation of the story begun in Collapsium (see review) and continued in Wellstone, where the Solar System is enjoying a Golden Age, but the next generation doesn't much care for it and winds up exiled on the starship Newhope sent to colonize Barnard's Star at the end of a century long voyage. By this time, these are familiar themes, but thanks to the author's deft storytelling, the book remains engaging and worth reading either by itself or for the continuance of the Wellstone saga.
The action opens with two old, and I mean millennially old, men falling towards the moon (or what's left of it in this far future) in a spaceship that reminds us of nothing so much as the sphere from Jules Verne's First Men In the Moon. Knowing that this all takes place in a future distant even by the standards of the first two books in this saga, this steampunk conveyance seems odd, but as they towards the moon, Radmer, (henceforth known as Conrad Mursk) muses about the last time he saw that body, when he was leaving the solar system on a voyage of colonization and adventure...and so dear reader, we're off on a tangent that lasts the rest of the book, we slip gently into that story. Readers of the previous book will recognize that this flashback framed by the later story is the continuance of the same ubersaga in Wellstone. Maybe at some point the two timelines will actually merge and we'll get somewhere.
This is, in fact the story of Wellstone: The Next Generation, as Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui, former prince of the Solar System strikes out with the dissidents of his generation to start up a new civilization free from the cares of their elders. It's tough being prince when the king, who we knew from Collapsium as Bruno de Towji, inventor of the eponymous quantum material, is immortal. So Bascal, his former comrade in adolescence Conrad Mursk, and the rest of their flock strike out on their own.
If you're used to stories of colonization that start with a generation ship, with the crew in suspended animation, you'll feel right at home. The use of "faxes", essentially quantum teleportation devices that can "reprint" your physical and mental self with perfect (or better yet, good as new) fidelity, changes a lot. If a few of the waking crew get out of hand, what better object lesson than to shoot them, "print" them out again and make them watch a video of their bad behavior, and subsequent consequence. You're probably getting a good news/bad news feeling about this combination of power and technology, and you're probably right.
Setting up shop in a new solar system when you've got lots of matter replicators at your disposal is a lot easier than the old, take a few tractors down in the shuttle routine. What's more, with an immortal population, you're not just building for future generations, you can reasonably expect to be around to see the results of your terraforming and city building to bear fruit. Absolute power however, turns out to have its limits when the new solar system turns out to be less metal rich than Sol's, and the output of "wellstone" fax plates the budding civilization is capable of falls below the failure rate of the existing machines.
Soon (by immortal standards) this golden age tarnishes, and the conservation of privilege for the few of power reasserts itself as King Bascal orders more and more of the freshly dead into cryosuspension rather than faxing them back to life. Their time will come again, he promises...when the current crisis is over.
Conrad knows better than to fall for that old saw, especially since he realizes that the high radiation environment near Barnard's Star will turn the corpsicles into unrecoverable corpses long before the "current crisis" could possibly be resolved...so he sets about to do something about it.
McCarthy does a terrific job with the story both by creating characters that engage the reader and by the creation of extremely well conceived future technology. Sending yourself on virtual vacation to another starsystem and combining your traveling self with you stay at home self (assuming you don't become the subject of the title) has interesting possibilities that even Phil Dick would be impressed by. Managing relationships between immortals is turns out to be the same problem in hundred year lives writ larger for clarity, and well, I've already mentioned absolute power.
There are others playing in this field who are just as good, John Wright (The Golden Age), Chris Moriarty (Spin State), Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon), but each have their own take on the future. Monarchy, Social Democracy, Capitalism or Anarchy? Will there be rich and poor, and how will you tell them apart? Each has their own spin on the future and nobody should read just one. Just as long as Wil McCarthy is definitely in there.