The book Vast by Linda Nagata is the culmination of a trilogy that follows a small group of characters through the trials of outliving their own cultural heritage and how their technology has transcended their own humanity. As a science fiction novel it’s a bit of an outlier when it comes to commentary on the human condition because it maps less the cultural significance of technological influence and focuses on the individual struggles of the characters.
When approaching this book expect something a great deal more character driven than plot driven. Although the environment itself is the enemy of the characters in this book, they’re faced with numerous obstacles to overcome both personally and collectively.
Vast follows the remaining crew of the Null Boundary an ancient semi-living ship that has been sailing the reaches of interstellar space harboring four survivors of a terrible war that wasted their entire people. The first character is Lot, the sullen upstart and child of a profit who carries a nanovirus infection that spreads devotion to a religious cult. Urban, Lot’s boyhood friend whose sense of adventure drove him to head to the stars with Lot. Clemantine who experienced firsthand the destruction of her race and yearns for revenge. Finally there’s Nikko, who spends most of his time as the disembodied mind of the ship but actually has a body (should he choose to use it.)
They are seeking the Chenzeme, an alien race who are little known in of themselves except for their terrible warships that prowl the stars and ravage the civilized worlds. That’s basis of the plot; but really this is a book about the characters.
The Null Boundary itself is an interesting vessel and a technology that runs on something called “philosopher cells,” essentially a skin of thoughtful computers that discuss all decisions and determine based on consensus between the different cells. They’re living creatures and need nutriment and socialization—but they’re also vulnerable to the ravages of space. Without them the Null Boundary would be without senses. The character, Nikko spends most of his time talking to the philosopher cells attempting to learn from them and flying the ship.
The book presents the strange interpersonal relationships between people who are now more than people. With their bio- and nanotechnology they can upload their consciousness and sentience and keep it backed up. As a result, they’re capable of becoming part of the ship, cloning themselves off new bodies (with the same but separate minds) and even go out and explore without actually leaving the ship.
One of the more profound moments happens when Clemantine clones herself to go back home to see if their war-ravaged space has been recolonized by anyone. Her clone—a mind and shape that is actually her—leaves with great sorrow and the author points out that they cried for her as, “She would always be with them; they would never see her again.” While the original Clemantine stays on the ship, the clone Clemantine would be departing her friends from that point and never see them again.
As the end of a trilogy, it certainly helps to read the other books first—to come to grips not with the characters so much as the technologies and the word—but it stands alone well enough within the boundaries of its world building. Each of the characters is already well formed, with strong motivations and a great deal of emotional interplay as they reflect back on their past and what got them where they are now.
The title ends a little bit strangely, however, and leaves a lot of stones unturned. A great deal of the science fiction is written into the very relationships between the characters and into flashbacks into their past. In a powerful sort of way Vast is almost a retrospective on how science fiction looks at how technology affects individuals, empowers them in their journeys, but also sometimes changes them fundamentally at the human level.