Monday, May 13, 2024

Book Review: Inverted Frontier by Linda Nagata

The latest (and possibly penultimate) volume in the Inverted Frontier series has the explorers on Dragon and Griffin have a true first contact, and possibly an enemy within.

The Inverted Frontier series (Edges, Silver, Needle), as successor to her far future novels such as Deception Well have told the story of a far future group of humans, some of the last survivors of humanitry known, slowly make their way back to Earth, exploring the “Hollowed Vasties” of the realm around the home star long since devastated by a variety of internal and external problems. Along the way, they’ve come across revolutionary nanotech (“Silver”) capable of making worlds, minds of an alien species intent on destroying biological life, and other wonders besides.

But on a long journey between star systems (there is no FTL in this verse), there are questions that arise regarding the nature and state of mind of those controlling the secondary ship Griffin. And then there are intimations that their next system on their tour might hold actual alien life that is not the xenophobically murderous Chenzeme automated vehicles (think Fred Saberhagen style Berserkers) . And then there are the ambitious of the crew of Dragon, too, to truly make their mark on the universe.

This and much more is in the story of Blade, the fourth in the series.

The story of Blade revolves, ultimately, around the use of the titular Blade. The Blade, a piece of worldmaking power powered by the strange and poorly understood nanotech known as Silver, has been a literal Chekhov's gun since the second book in the series, Silver, and nearly lead to disaster in the previous novel, Needle. Now in the fourth novel, in the making of first contact, Urban has another chance, a unique opportunity to do something he has sought to do since Silver: unleash the power of the Blade, use the nanotech Silver, and help create an entire world. He’s seen two results of what can be done with such power, and now, he seeks to unlock the last door in that knowledge and do it himself.

And in fact, to go right to the heart and theme of this novel this knowledge is all about knowledge and the power of knowledge. Knowledge is a blade. Knowledge is the knife that can carve a chicken in a kitchen, or cut against an enemy real or perceived. Knowledge withheld, shunted off, or changed, or faked can lead people to be manipulated, act against their own interests, and cause great harm. And the thirst for knowledge can cause all sorts of chaos and bad decisions in its wake.

Throughout this book again and again, knowledge of various sorts, and the fears and power of knowledge is what propels the plot. Urban, given the information he has, the knowledge at his disposal, is afraid that the alternate mind of his ex lover Clementine on board the secondary ship Griffin has developed divergent ideas of her own, and possibly is aligned with the rather dangerous alien substrate deep in the spacecraft. This leads to tragedy, possibly the extinguishing of intelligent life (a subtheme in this novel). The knowledge exchanges and negotiations between Dragon and the aliens they encounter (and the one human with them) also are fraught affairs. And then there is the very human AI lurking in the alien colonized system, and their agenda in information control leads to catastrophic results on several sides.

And then there is the titular Blade itself. The phrase “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is not meant as a slam on knowing anything. It’s meant as a cautionary tale on knowing some, but not enough, to think that you understand something extremely complicated and dangerous, to take shortcuts when you absolutely should not. And then the tragic results come out of it. And in the end, this novel, fourth in the series, turns out to be a Tragedy of Knowledge. I will leave the actual details for you to discover.

Nagata does leaven the tragedy of the Blade with a wham moment at the end of the novel, when Urban, Clementine and the rest of the explorers discover that (keeping in theme) a key piece of knowledge they thought that they had is wrong. And fitting that this knowledge, mistaken and now to be corrected, in this penultimate book in the series, is about the destination they have had since the first book: Earth.

That last bit helps highlight something I don’t want to get lost in discussing a book four of a series that itself sits on top of other books. This book definitely requires, to fully appreciate it, knowledge of a complicated half dozen science fiction novels. That’s a high wire act on the same level as keeping a very complicated epic fantasy series on course and making things comprehensible to its fans (Nagata has also written, to much less widespread knowledge alas, fantasy, so she knows of what she is doing). It’s extremely difficult to do what Nagata has been doing, building up this SF series and keeping it together, and providing a bigger, wider tapestry with every subsequent book.

To present new wonders, new ideas and new vistas in a wide ranging, big SF series is no mean feat. I’ve said in earlier reviews that the folks updating Stellaris should start paying attention to Nagata’s work, because there is such a richness of idea and invention here to explore and immersive oneself in. There are science fiction vistas and concepts that few SF authors are willing to go big screen canvas on, but Nagata gives this all, in of all things, a non FTL universe. And she makes it all work, but it does mean that the pace of the novel and the voyage of the Dragon and Griffin is years of quiet followed by high peaks of excitement (it is no wonder that many of the crew are not in active mode for the long years between systems). This novel, though, does have a significant amount of character conflict occur on the voyage itself.

But in general, character characterization isn’t quite as strong, there really are only several really strong characters in the fleet but Nagata uses characterization and character development (especially with the run up to the use of the Blade) strategically and energetically. And so when characters are, in fact, lost (difficult but possible even in a world of digital backups of people), it does leave a mark, as Nagata intended. She successfully shows that even in a world where I could go down to a dangerous planetoid because I have a backup handy with my memories in the software of the ship, there are still real stakes involved.

And that is where I am going to tie this book up. In the end, the stakes of the voyagers returning into the center of realms long lost, to find out what happened ultimately to Earth and its colonies in the wake of technological evolution, war, and alien berserkers ultimately is something Nagata makes me care about. I do want to know what they find in the 5th and subsequent volume of Earth and see how she finishes the series.


  • High Tech Space Opera winningly depicted and written
  • Important theme of Knowledge, Good, Bad and Ill, an essential tentpole of the book.

Reference: Nagata, Linda, Inverted Frontier, Blade, [Mythic Island Press, 2024]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.