Vast by Linda Nagata (Bantam Spectra, $5.99, 403 pages, paperback; published August 1998.)
There's one big problem with writing about space travel. Either you ask your readers to buy into all those convenient wormholes just waiting to take the characters where they need to go, like some intergalactic underground. Or else you and the readers have to accept that travelling from A-B is going to take a mind-numbing number of years, never mind travelling from A-Z which is going to take more centuries than anyone wants to read about.
With Vast, Linda Nagata goes the long-haul route that says, Hey, travel is mind-numbing and my characters are all stuck in a spaceship that's long, thin and none too pleasant - and they'd better learn to live with it because the alternative is they go mad, if they haven't already. In fact, Vast is like nothing so much as Das Boot in space.
The author also assumes a certain amount of previous knowledge of the characters; with the action continuing on from where Deception Well ended... 'Ex-human' Lot - still infected by the Cult virus - is travelling aboard a thousands-of-years-old organic space ship the Null Boundary. Lot and those with him are in search of the truth about the Chenzeme, an ancient, maybe already dead, mutated or evolved alien race who - millions of years back - fashioned hunter/killer spaceships programmed to destroy any sentient race they meet.
There's one weakness and one strength to the Das Boot school of character building. The weakness, which in Vast is also a narrative weakness, is that pages of non-event are needed to create a sense of the grinding boredom facing the crew. This is obviously necessary but, equally obviously, if it's boring for the crew to live through then chances are it's going to be boring for the reader to read. Linda Nagata takes a calculated risk and just about gets away with it.
The strength of Vast is that Linda Nagata makes it clear from the start that while the crew might be running silently across billions of miles and endless years from the Chenzeme cruiser, their real battle is internal. Not with each other, but with their own inner desires for revenge against the elusive Chenzeme, their guilt at surviving what others didn't and their fear that they are becoming less and less human.
Lot isn't quite the main character, but he's the only one who can't create copies of himself, giving him a vulnerability and pathos the others lack; if only because it's difficult to care as deeply about characters whose first response to danger is to duplicate themselves and e-mail the back-up copy to somewhere safer.
Lot's also the one who carries the insidious, religious-mania inducing Cult virus which burns him up with a need to convert others the way a heroin addict burns with hunger for the drug. Unable to convert the crew he longs for landfall at an inhabited planet to let him assuage his hunger. It's a brilliant, sad characterisation and in Lot the author has created the equivalent of a vampire trapped in a world where there's no blood.
There's one other neat touch. The book opens with Nikko, the Null Boundary's disembodied mind, counting off life in 90 second bursts, wiping everything that just happened and starting the count over again. And in a way that says more about the mind-numbing boredom of long-term space flight than whole chapters of Das-Boot like silent running ever can.
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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 7 November 1998