Thursday, January 5, 2012

7th Sigma by Steven Gould

7th Sigma is a coming-of-age story examining your everyday typical young man who has a genius level intellect, phenomenal social cunning and goes on spy missions for the government while being raised in a martial arts dojo in a frontier setting filled with robotic monsters.  It’s also a sort-of retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.  I’d claim expertise in textual analysis, but the truth is it’s been a long time since I read Kim, what clued me in is that the protagonist has the same first name, uses the same last name as a code name when he’s doing secret missions, and there are quotes from Kim in the section headers.  So that sort of tipped me off there, no cunning required.  Nonetheless I enjoyed it for what it was, and for other reasons which I’ll elaborate on as I go.

If you’re at all familiar with statistics then you’ll recognize “sigma” as the symbol for standard deviation.  Something that’s seven standard deviations away from the mean is very rare indeed (exactly how rare is helpfully explained in the introductory quotes).  That said, statistics plays no part in the narrative at all and I’m not sure why it’s the name of the book.  Just lets you know something highly irregular is going on, I guess.

The highly irregular thing is that the American southwest has been infested by these little self-replicating robot bugs.  They fly around and consume all metals, making additional bugs with the materials so consumed.  The bugs are after elemental metal, they don’t rend living beings down for their hemoglobin or anything.  They are dangerous enough anyway, though.  Through trial and error the people around have figured out there are basically four things the bugs do – 1) if any bug is destroyed, every bug in a pretty big radius comes to consume it, swarming erratically and moving through any objects (or living creatures) in the way; 2) swarm to and consume anything emitting EM radiation; 3) consume free metals; 4) sit around and charge their batteries with photovoltaic wings.  So although they’ve got the power to kill people they’re mostly background, and there’s been enough time passed since their appearance that everyone’s mostly used to them by now.

The bugs have completely taken over New Mexico and Arizona, parts of Utah, Nevada, Texas, some of the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and possibly a little more.  It’s not explicitly set forth anywhere.  The US Army has set up a barrier which they claim contains the infestation, but one of the characters claims that’s bullshit, that he was with the Army when they tried to fight the bugs originally and they never were able to stop the outbreak.  Of course, he might be wrong.  In any event, the infestation isn’t actively spreading anymore, the bugs’ territory is clearly established.

One of the things I like very much about this book is the care that Gould has to just let this develop.  Various characters have different theories about the nature and cause of the bugs.  Most people think that it was an industrial accident caused by experiments in mining technology that went awry, although some think it was a terrorist attack.  Others believe that it wasn’t terrestrial in origin at all, although whether or not it was deliberate in that case isn’t established either.  Gould has enough confidence in his writing to just let this be the backdrop without throwing in someone or other to give a lot of random exposition.  (That said there are clearly some people who know more than others and this knowledge can be costly.)

I also really like the fact that he’s done his homework and it’s there on the page.  I guess that the states of New Mexico and Arizona have been dissolved, and the whole zone is once again a federal territory.  The day to day workings of the territory aren’t really elaborated on, but at one point some characters are discussing a particularly nasty court case that started in the territory and worked its way up into the federal court system, and that the attorney for one of these parties was sanctioned under Rule 11.  It’s hard for me to overstate how happy this made me, since that’s exactly how such a case would progress and Gould even cited the right rules.  It’s far more typical for authors to mess up jurisdictions and procedural rules than not, since it’s usually not significant to the plot.  But Gould went the extra mile here.  I also know a little bit about livestock and gyrojets, both of which match what is said about them.  I don’t know a whole lot about aikido or building adobe ovens, but I’m more inclined to trust him on those matters since he’s proven himself trustworthy in world building.

Something else that is nice is that people in the Territory are still US citizens; you can move more or less freely in and out of the checkpoints.  If you’re coming in then they make you sign a release and watch a horrific video of the bugs killing somebody, but it’s not a horrible dystopia if you live there, you can just leave whenever you want to and come back as you like (assuming you can afford it).  Kimble Monroe, the hero of the book, used to visit his relatives in the Midwest all the time, so he’s familiar with television and video games and all that sort of thing.  And supplies like ceramics and fiber composites come in too, although it’s not entirely clear what the Territory produces in trade.  But most of the people who live there are still there because they want to be.  There’s also a good examination of what kind of people might choose to live this way, you’ve got some regular people, some crazy survivalists and malcontents, and then some well-organized religious extremists who are fairly well adapted for this sort of lifestyle and think that they should run the place.  Some of this is a little straw mannish, but not to a great degree.  And one thing I did really like is that they’re talking about making Bible study mandatory in the public school, a proposal which goes down 3-2 after an impassioned speech by Kim’s sensei in defense of the First Amendment, but that’s not what swayed the board – they were all in favor of the proposal really but couldn’t agree on what translation to use.  Little details like this are really nice to me, since it’s how real people actually behave.

Kim’s father had to leave the Territory and have a pacemaker installed, which means he can’t ever go back.  Kim’s mother is dead, and since his father is a mean drunk Kim sees no reason to go live with him, so the book starts with him at age 11, living as a street kid and trying to avoid the law, which would forcibly reunite him with his father whether he wants to go or not.  Enter the aikido master Ruth, who’s starting a dojo in the territory as a means to recover from her failed marriage, is impressed by the martial arts skills he already learned at the local YMCA equivalent, and takes him in as student and foster child.

At this point I’ll observe that the structure of the book is more of a series of vignettes in the life of Kim as he grows up.  The first section takes place when he’s roughly 11, the second at about 14-15, and the third at around age 17.  In addition to Ruth he runs into a federal marshal early on, who recognizes his intelligence and ability and uses him as an asset in law enforcement missions, which mostly involve him sneaking around and/or spying on people.  The crimes they’re investigating are pretty pedestrian and not at all outlandish.  For instance, there’s people involved in smuggling methamphetamines in from Mexico, in running gyro-jet composite guns in from the US, and just generally being bandits.  Kim also references a bunch of other adventures he has in between these that we never find out all the details for, for instance he’s recovering from nearly being killed by a group that sounds like that FLDS sect run by Warren Jeffs as the third section starts.  So if you’re looking for some sort of tight, overarching plot building to a huge climax then this isn’t the book for you.  It’s more of a study of these characters as they do various things.  However there are some really good mysteries as well, and a sense of discovery, such as when Kim and some other guys are tracking a pack of sheep-killing feral dogs and they gradually discover that one of the dogs may not actually be a dog at all, which leads to a question about whether the robotic bugs are the only weird thing going on out there.

I’m not going to say that Kim isn’t realistic exactly, since he does do a lot of things that a normal person his age would do, and he’s used to having to work hard in the dojo/farm.  But I will say that he seems sort of implausibly awesome and poised.  He’s smarter than everyone else, he’s got infallible social awareness, his martial arts training allows him to kick ass at will, he’s sufficiently mysterious and alluring that some cute girl who’s taking a break after her freshman year at Berkley wants to give him an erotic massage, etc.  He does seem to have an inexplicable attraction for adventure and danger.  It’s more fair to say that Kim would be at home in a 1950s boys’ adventure serial.  Perhaps, in fact, that’s what it is.

Also, I’m disappointed that given the option to attend Rice University he nonetheless decided to go with Stanford, although doubtless the erotic massage girl had something to do with that choice, and that is the sort of consideration that a 17-year old would of course have.

So I found this book highly readable and I really liked the characters and the setting.  There would seem to be an inevitable sequel hook here, which I basically disapprove of in the sense that if there’s more plot I wish this book was just longer rather than just ending on the note that it does.  Nonetheless this was a lot of fun when approached in the intended spirit and it’s a great way to kick off 2012.

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