“Vast”

by Henry on April 2, 2019

Today is a big day for some of us. Linda Nagata’s follow-up to the Nanotech Succession books, Edges is coming out. The third book in that previous series, Vast, is one of the great unrecognized SF classics of the last twenty years.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss suggests that one of the wellsprings of science fiction was the Victorians’ discovery that human beings were not at the center of the universe, were at most a temporary florescence in a process of evolution that had continued for billions of years before, and might continue for billions of years after. He describes the sense of radical alienation that this provoked, quoting a passage from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels where a character discovers a fossil in a cliff. This describes how humans, for the first time, really had to think about the age of things and their own cosmic unimportance. This perspective of deep time has been an important engine of science fiction ever since. Olaf Stapledon’s work provides one version. H.P. Lovecraft’s another (but that perspective is far more skilfully developed by Caitlin Kiernan, who is a paleontologist as well as writer)

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo winning novel, Spin provides a famous take on what happens when human beings are forced to confront cosmological time. Vast  provides another, and in my opinion, even better one. Her characters have wandered out into a galaxy that is a battlefield from a civil war that ended thirty million years ago, still littered with weapons that are half-plague half-social contagion and vast autonomous spaceships, guided by colonies of “philosopher cells” that operate like cellular automata turned lethal. The human longing for transcendence becomes a trap that can enfold even those who are aware of its dangers in its sticky embrace. As one of the key characters reflects in a previous novel, looking at an insect that has wandered into his collection of carnivorous plants.

Lot wondered if the fly would have followed the sundew’s sweet scent if it could have comprehended the danger ahead of time. And he decided that it probably would have. Consciousness did not negate instinct. It only provided a post for self-observation.

Much current science fiction is sentimental, using a cold universe as mere backdrop for heartwarming stories about people with difficult backgrounds making new families for themselves. Vast, in contrast, isn’t even slightly sentimental, though it is  about family – unorthodox family, whose members often don’t particularly understand each other, and grow further apart as they speciate. The lesson that Vast has – if it has a lesson, any more than the universe has one – is the need to adapt and change.

I don’t want to say any more, for fear of spoilers, except to recommend that you read it, if you at all think that you might want to. It deserves to be rediscovered, and folded back into the main story of science fiction, rather than merely serving as a well of hidden inspiration. It’s the third in a series, but I read it before the other two, and found that the additional sense of alienation and in media res enhanced the story rather than detracting from it. Alastair Reynolds, whose books are deeply influenced by it, had the same experience. You can then dive into the earlier books as an excavation of the prehistory.

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Vast and its prequels in preparation for the new book’s launch. Twenty years later, the rest of the field has still to catch up with it.

 

{ 21 comments }

1

eg 04.03.19 at 3:13 am

I remember when I used to teach high school English, trying to explain to my students the shock that the discoveries of geology revealed about the age of the earth and that astronomy revealed about the size of the universe.

Humankind suddenly found its significance radically shrunken and displaced from the comfortably central prominence implied by its prevailing mythologies.

Arguably, we are still coming to grips with that displacement in cultural terms.

2

Dr. Hilarius 04.03.19 at 4:10 am

I’ve read some of Nagata’s books but so long ago I can’t even recall which ones (if I prowl my triple-shelved paperbacks maybe I can jog some brain cells). I do have a favorable impression and your post motivates my to read or re-read Vast. Thank you.

3

Bruce Baugh 04.03.19 at 5:25 am

Oh, wow, somehow I’d missed hearing about this, or at least missed remembering it. Thank you!

4

Gabriel 04.03.19 at 8:25 am

Cheers for this – book recommendations aren’t the only reason I come to CT, but there are certainly one of the reasons. Look forward to sitting down to the first book tonight.

5

guthrie 04.03.19 at 9:47 am

I tried to read Vast a few years ago now. I had a lot of trouble doing so, simply because it seems close to the edge of what is readable as a story, rather than as a descriptive textbook or suchlike. The situation was so alien, with characters whose motivations were unclear and it all lasted for such a long time, that there was little to draw me, the reader, in.
So you could say I was alienated, I suppose that was in part due to reading the 3rd in a series first.
I’m not going to dispute the unrecognised classic tag though, because it is good to have people pushing stories as far out as they can go. I have had similar feelings from one of Greg Egan’s works, I can’t recall which one, the one with lots of maths in it, of alienation and lack of humanity and relateable meaning.

6

Demigourd 04.03.19 at 12:44 pm

Page ten:

“Reactor function is nominal. Air quality is nominal. Crew health: nominal.”

Using “nominal” to mean “ideal” is some bizarre trap that sci-fi authors seem unable to avoid.

7

steven t johnson 04.03.19 at 1:17 pm

There is a widespread trend towards recognizing women writers. Linda Nagata is not one of the eminent names, though. I suppose the review columns of Strange Horizons would fill in on who they are. But the tendency is to be both literary, in the sense of conforming to the implicit political commitments, and commercial, in the sense of committing SFF.

Litarary people tend to assume the existence of an eternal human condition that it is the function of literature to explore; to assume the existence of a personal essence (aka soul in less refined company); to believe character is destiny; to impute everything to the free will; to create a just universe, with standards generally highly derivative from the beloved piety of their childhood. No literary person is perfectly literary, any more than no villain is perfectly villainous. And the set decorations will vary remarkably, according to the trends of the day.

SFF is a commercial category, where the stylistic difference between something fantastic that is supposed in fantasy to be supernatural versus science fiction where the fantastic is supposed to be natural, is dismissed as irrelevant to the real point: Some readers are unable to suspend disbelief and therefore won’t buy books with the fantastic. Horror and absurdist and some satire get lumped in with SFF, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly, because they have the same target audience. This disdain for mere style is touted as being free from tedious and stupid genre restrictions. For my part, I think any contempt for style is more or less the absence of art, but what do I know?

Linda Nagata I do recommend, but the point of the previous is to warn that she is not properly literary, and she is writing SF, not SFF. Vast can technically qualify as military SF, but done with a skill and sophistication in setting and characterization that would bemuse fans of Ringo, Drake, Weber et al. She is not actually an Adams Robert kind of writer, though I doubt Roberts would ever do more than damn with faint praise.

8

Bruce Baugh 04.03.19 at 2:53 pm

Demigourd, a lot of actual air forces and space services use it that way. It’s not something sf writers invented.

9

NomadUK 04.03.19 at 4:09 pm

Using “nominal” to mean “ideal” is some bizarre trap that sci-fi authors seem unable to avoid.

It’s generally used in spaceflight and similar fields to mean ‘acceptable’, not ‘ideal’. Perhaps that’s what most writers also mean.

10

Older 04.03.19 at 6:43 pm

“Nominal” is also used in medical assessments to mean “acceptable”. When I see it on my lab reports, it means “don’t worry”.

11

NickS 04.03.19 at 8:23 pm

I read it before the other two, and found that the additional sense of alienation and in media res enhanced the story rather than detracting from it.

That was my experience as well. I happened across it in a used book store, knowing nothing about Linda Nagata or the setting, and thought it was amazing (and have recommended it to other people as well). Unlike you, I did not go back an read the two prior books.

The other book of hers that I’ve read (and enjoyed) was Memory which is an interesting work which combines her somewhat emotionally-distant style with (I think) a Tolkein-influced quest narrative. I found it a compelling combination.

12

J-D 04.03.19 at 9:35 pm

According to Wiktionary:
(engineering) According to plan or design; normal.
We’ll just do a nominal flight check.
Apart from the slightly high temperature, all the readings from the spacecraft are nominal.

According to The Free Dictionary, citing Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary:
Aerospace. performing or achieved within expected limits; normal and satisfactory.

According to Merriam-Webster:
: being according to plan : SATISFACTORY
everything was nominal during the launch

According to Oxford Living Dictionaries:
informal (chiefly in the context of space travel) functioning normally or acceptably.

13

Demigourd 04.03.19 at 10:52 pm

Clearly “nominal” escaped into the wild because someone thought it sounded cool without knowing what it actually means, but language evolves etc.

14

J-D 04.04.19 at 3:35 am

Demigourd

I can understand that it might not be immediately obvious what the connection is between this particular specialised use of the word ‘nominal’ and earlier generalised uses, but when I put my mind to it I think I can trace it. It didn’t result from somebody thinking the word sounded cool and not knowing what it meant. (Sure, that kind of thing does happen: people start using ‘fortuitous’ as if it meant ‘fortunate’, because there’s a superficial similarity, they don’t know the original meaning of ‘fortuitous’, and they like the sound of ‘fortuitous’ better; or people start using ‘haver’ to mean ‘vacillate’ because it sounds like a cross between ‘hover’ and ‘waver’ and they don’t know its original meaning. But I can’t figure how anything like that could be the explanation in this case.)

A nominal value, in the general sense, is a stated value. If one engineer asked another ‘What frequency/speed/temperature does this component operate at?’, the other engineer, if hyper-cautious, might easily answer ‘Well, this is what it says in the specifications/manual/instructions/guidelines, so that’s the nominal value.’ From there (or from similar exchanges), it would be easy to arrive at a situation where ‘nominal’ is used to mean something like ‘functioning at a standard or value compatible with documentation’.

People using ‘fortuitous’ to mean ‘fortunate’ vexes me, because we already have ‘fortunate’ to mean ‘fortunate’, and now we can’t expect people to understand ‘fortuitous’ in its original meaning. This case isn’t like that one. You might as well cavil at people using ‘mouse’ and ‘driver’ with new meanings in the context of computing: new words were needed for the new things, and they don’t interfere with continuing simultaneous usage of the old meanings.

15

Cian 04.04.19 at 1:01 pm

Which Caitlan Kiernan novels would you recommend Henry?

16

Demigourd 04.04.19 at 1:42 pm

Nominal complaints aside, I just finished Vast and it was fantastic.

Spose I should do Edges then.

17

Maria 04.04.19 at 4:38 pm

I love her short stories – I was just re-reading Martian Obelisk last night, which does strange and lovely things with time-lags and the end of times near-future. Hadn’t realised Vast existed. Thanks, Hen!

18

Henry 04.05.19 at 9:06 pm

Cian – short stories better than novels, though Threshold does the deep time thing well – the novellas Black Helicopters and Agents of Dreamland are good samples, and the best of have most of the good stuff (as well as some not-so-good).

19

Bruce Baugh 04.05.19 at 11:11 pm

Cian: Threshold is a reasonable starting place with Kiernan, being an early book that shows a bunch of her recurring interests to good effect, interweaving good real paleontology, cosmic horror, and tangled relationships of people who’d like to be living better than they are. There are more books with one of the protagonists, but it stands completely on its own. I’m also very keen on The Red Tree, a stand-alone story about a woman who’s come from the South to Lovecraft’s New England in the wake of relationship disaster, who finds herself running up against elegantly presented Lovecraftian stuff.

I agree with Henry about Agents Of Dreamland and Black Helicopters. There’s an argument that the novella is like the format for horror excellence, and certainly it’s true that a lot of the field’s great work is at novella length.

20

Russell L. Carter 04.05.19 at 11:16 pm

Yah so I’m a sucker for Henry’s recommendations. Might have added that there is quite the taste of Octavia E. Butler, though I don’t think the prose quite as felicitious. Yall never guess what I mean, until, uh, it happens. (I believe that particular thing is an innovation on OEB, but plenty of genuine OEB ideas in there also.)

Also a hole or two of the ‘um not that door’, or…’ run!’ varieties but those are trifles compared to how well the whole enterprise is brought off.

I am burnt out by a rather wide survey of modern sci-fi, completely gamma-roasted on fantasy (no more non-tech magic and absolutely no wizards or dragons) and I will buy the next book, that’s my review.

21

Plarry 04.07.19 at 4:51 pm

Do you jump into Vast directly or start with Tech-Heaven, which seems to be the first in the series?

Comments on this entry are closed.