Steven Gould is perhaps best known for his novel Jumper originally released in 1992 and later adapted into a film in 2008. I found the film enjoyable if somewhat forgettable and regrettable only in that it managed to line the pockets of Hayden Christensen. Burried in a box of ARCs from Baker and Taylor I found Gould’s most recent novel, 7th Sigma, and immediately cued in on the idea giant metal eating bugs.
In 7th Sigma a plague of metal devouring bugs of mysterious origin overran the American southwest some 50 years ago. The government cordoned off the region with a bug-repelling barrier and the area, now known as the Territory, has become something a no-man’s land populated by the stubborn, the hardened, and often the unwanted. Our story, or stories depending on how you look at it, center around the irascible rapscallion known as Kimble. Kimble, a young teen, has been surviving on his own in the Territory ever since his drunk of father passed away using his wits and martial arts skills to say on the up and up. Life still isn’t easy and he quickly latches onto Ruth Munroe, a pioneer type setting out set up a new Aikido dojo.
The novel does little to hide that is a reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. This is a fact that I can only point out as I have no real first hand experience with Kipling’s work. Reader’s more familiar with Kim might be able to point out similarities or notice the parallels far better than myself. Regardless, one of the more fascinating aspects of the novel is its setting. While the book is decidedly set in the near-future, the inability to use metal (since the bugs are attracted to it) and the hardscrabble nature of the Territory lend the novel a frontier feel. It is the Wild West as seen through the lens of modern society with just about any and every throwback to frontier living you can think of from covered wagons to the town drunk. It lends the novel a familiar feeling enhanced by the science fiction element of the mysterious bugs.
On the one hand the bugs are a pervasive force of the novel while on the other they serve quite often as background dressing. Gould manages to keep the bugs central to the story while at the same time never quite addressing their presence directly. He is fairly straight forward in hinting that there is more to them than meets the eye. The novel is split into vignettes of a sort and at least once during each section of the novel Gould manages to highlight one oddity of bug behavior. These oddities take a very distinct path that plays out in an entertaining if somewhat predictable fashion. I was occasionally frustrated that some action takes place off-screen, indeed the main event (Kimble’s first mission for Captain Benthem) serves as an important clue as to Kimble’s character but is only discussed in dialog. I would have really liked to have seen the action of this early adventure relayed more directly.
Gould populates this Territory with a cast of likeable characters with Kimble at the forefront. He is an extraordinarily capable young man with a headstrong attitude and a tendency to act before thinking. Occasionally his skills strain credulity and there were moments when I felt things went a bit too smoothly for him. Kimble has a strong supporting cast of characters from the capable and wise Ruth, the fatherly Captain Bentham, and curious Thayet. None, save perhaps Ruth, are revealed in quite as much detail as Kimble and the relationship between Kimble and Ruth is one of the novel’s strongest points.
7th Sigma is not the most thought provoking of novels but it is one of the most fun. Its young lead character gives it a YA vibe but Tor is not really marketing it as such. Truth be told save for some instance of harsh language, and at least one situation that deals with the mistreatment of women, 7th Sigma is completely YA friendly. While it doesn’t precisely end on a cliffhanger Gould leaves enough open at the end to leave readers anxious for more.