by Paul Melko
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Karen Burnham
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317773
Date: 05 February 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Most of humanity went away -- physically up to a gigantic orbital ring, mentally into a VR community, then ... well, that's a bit of a mystery. Those who remain aren't typical humans anymore: Many of them are members of pods, small groups of people who think best together. Mainly they're trying to fix up this old Earth of ours, but one group has its sights set on something higher: interstellar travel. They've trained for it since they were born, but nothing is ever simple in this interesting and exciting book. The pod at the center of the story is named Apollo Papadopulos and consists of five individuals: Strom (the strongest), Moira (the ethicist), Meda (the communicator), Quant (the analyst) and Manuel (the dextrous). In each of the first five chapters, the author follows a pattern: place the young adults in jeopardy, and separate the viewpoint character from the supportive environs of the pod. Put each one through his or her paces alone, so as to better see what they each contribute to the group.
It's a very effective way of emphasizing that the pods aren't hive minds: They're really collections of individuals trained to think and act together. (The act of thinking together is facilitated by chemical communication passed by touch and scent.) There's no pod-person loss of individuality here.
Papadopulos' circumstances yield plenty of adventures for all the chapters. First, they're almost killed in a training exercise, then they're corrupted by a "Singularity" survivor, then derailed while trying to rescue a coworker in space, then almost killed coming home down an abandoned space elevator and trekking through the Amazon. They hike from the Amazon all the way to Colorado (over several months), and thanks to Melko's groundwork and writing skill, it's completely believable.
There's enough action here for a raft of novels. With each adventure, we gain more insight into this world of the future and the threats facing the kids. We learn more about them as individuals and as a pod.
Eventually we realize that the kids' goal is going to be much more important than winning the berth as captain of the first interstellar space ship. They're going to have to perform a much different quest. While they do end up trying to save the world, the author very realistically notes that the fate of the whole world doesn't rest with them; it's just that they have a chance to fix a huge threat in a more benign way than the "nuke it from orbit" alternative.
This is a well-written and thoughtful book. It is well-extrapolated, and the world building is fascinating. I would like to read more stories set in this future, if the author chooses to write more. It feels deep enough to support more examination. Also, the characters are likable and easy to root for, and the adventurousness of their exploits makes for a fast-paced novel.
While it may not be cutting-edge it certainly isn't far away, and people who enjoy Singularity fiction such as Charles Stross' Accelerando may enjoy Melko's wry commentary on that phenomenon. Despite the title, it's clear that this author does not totally buy into the technological Singularity idea. This novel has most of the elements that I like in my science fiction, wrapped up in a package all the better for its relative brevity. Enjoy.