Review of The Bohr Maker, Tech Heaven and Deception Well by Linda Nagata

by Anders Sandberg

Linda Nagata is one of the most promising new authors of transhumanist fiction; unlike many more conventional science fiction authors she understands and does not hide from how deeply transhuman technologies can change society and what is considered human.

Her first three books forms a kind of loose trilogy. Each book is independent of the others, but it is clear from various details that they are set on the same timeline. Tech Heaven begins in the present and stretches 30 years into the future, The Bohr Maker is set around a century later, while Deception Well takes place several centuries or millennia later in another solar system. They can be seen as a chronicle of the gradual evolution of humanity, from the first transhumans to remote posthumanities.

The theme of Tech Heaven is cryonics and how people react to social and technological change. The husband of the protagonist is killed in an accident and cryonically suspended, perhaps more due to her wishes than his. The story then follows her life, as she gets involved with the cryonics movement and the political struggle against deathism, the tricky family problems in a family where the father is neither truly dead or alive, the social changes brought about by information technologies, space colonies and nanotechnologies and the emergence of biofundamentalism as a reaction to the numbing rate of change.

Nagata's portrayal of cryonics and transhumanism is positive, but slightly ambivalent: the opposition may be misguided and often fanatic, but sometimes it has a point. This ambivalence recurs in the protagonist, who is determined to bring her husband back to life but still have doubts about her actions (these doubts get rather tiring after 30 years). On the technical side Nagata describes cryonics correctly, both the suspension methods, how to keep the bodies frozen and a possible reanimation method.

Needless to say it is a very ambitious book, but this is also a weakness: the storyline becomes quite diluted through most of the book as other problems than cryonics keeps the protagonist busy. It is hard to both tell a story and describe a fairly detailled future, and Tech Heaven focuses more on the future. But Nagata does a good job at inventing a future that is unexpected enough to be believable, neither a dystopia or an utopia. Many of the issues raised are important and should be faced by transhumanists.

The Bohr Maker, Nagata's debut novel, is set several decades after Tech Heaven and a quite different book. While Tech Heaven was more of a political thriller, The Bohr Maker is action-oriented. By now much of humanity lives in orbital habitats, technologies such as bionics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, AI and uploading are commonplace and the political landscape has changed even further from the present. To protect humanity from dangerous technology the supernational organization called the Commonwealth enforces strict rules on what technologies are allowable: no independent AIs, no nanotechnology beyond certain limits, no genetic alterations too far beyond the human norm. To make sure these rules are followed draconian measures have to be used, since a single breach could have global consequences.

Needless to say, there are still people willing to risk everything to get their hands on the Bohr Maker, a nanosystem which integrates itself with the brain of its owners, making them able to design and assemble any nanodevice just by thinking about it. The story revolves about the wild chase after the Maker, which at times become quite labyrinthine as characters move around between different places and bodies or create uploaded "ghosts" to act as intermediaries (after all, why travel to a distant space habitat when you can just send your ghost there and download it into a suitable clone body?). Many interesting applications of advenced nanotechnology are suggested, such as mixed virtual and real meetings between ghosts and humans or radical artificial ecosystems.

The story is gripping and would likely do well as anime; it is even more appealing for us transhumanists since it is so clearly a battle between biofundamentalism and the wish to keep humanity bounded, and the idealistic vision of an unlimited transhumanity. It may not be a terribly deep analysis of the problem of dangerous technology, but it provides a good and inspiring read.

Deception Well is the third and latest book. It is set a long time after the events of the first two books, above and on the planet Deception Well. This book balances between the epic scale of Tech Heaven and the action of The Bohr Maker; it is maybe best described as a mystery novel where more questions are asked than answered. Its theme is ecology, evolution and the ever more tangled webs of coevolution that life of all kinds (biological, memetic, nanotechnological) spin.

Most of the novel takes place in Silk, a city built on a beanstalk rising from the verdant planet. The inhabitants of the city keep the planet in quarantine - its seemingly welcoming biosphere is controlled by nanodevices that appear to have killed the original builders of the city and beanstalk. In fact, the whole region of space around Deception Well is filled with dangerous nano-weapons left by the alien Chenzeme, bent on exterminating all life they can find.

Despite the quarantine a cult following the charismatic leader Jupiter Apolinaro attempted to descend to the surface of Deception Well. As Silk resisted their attempt violence erupted and the cultists were stranded in the city. Jupiters son Lot is the protagonist. Lot has grown up in Silk, kept under close surveillance by the authorities who fear his extensive modifications: he has the potentital of becoming a new Jupiter, and that is something the gerontocracy of Silk definitely don't want. At the same time tensions are slowly growing in the city between the restless young and the patient old, between the still believing cultists demanding passage down to the planet and the cynical silkens fearing nanodiseases.

This book is largely a series of interlocking mysteries: what is Deception Well? Why are the people trapped in Silk? Who was Jupiter and what happened to him? What is the relationship between the Chenzeme weapons and Lot? What happened to the builders of Silk? What is really going on in the universe? Many questions are slowly discovered through the novel and then suddenly answered when the reader least expects it; it is almost disappointing when somebody tells Lot the truth. At the same time the story gradually widens to epical proportions as the true nature of Deception Well and Jupiter are revealed. It is a tangled ecosystem of questions and intrigues from the nanoscale upwards, hinting at an universe that is frighteningly large and subtly dangerous.

In all three of Nagata's books the central conflict seems to be between Nature and the Artificial. It is not the common confrontation of "good" biology against "evil" technology. The sides are seldom simple, and it is often unclear what should be seen as natural or artificial in a world where biotechnology is commonplace. On one hand stands the vision of control and guardianship, what Jaron Lanier called the stewards, and on the other hand growth and freedom, the extropians. The stewards seek to retain stability and survival, while the extropians want to risk it for transcendence. In The Bohr Maker the conflict is between the stewards of the Commonwealth and the extropians of the corporation Summer House. While it is clear that Nagata is more on the extropian than on the steward side, she describes both benevolent and malevolent stewards, and suggests that autoevolution should not be undertaken lightly. Transcendence may well be a trap.

She knows what nanotechnology can and cannot do, and uses it in many ingenious ways without making it central to the stories. She points out many of the central problems we often conveniently ignore, and suggests some unexpected problems and possibilities. Most importantly, she manages to describe daily life in very different futures without going over the edge or assuming nothing has changed. I highly recommend all three novels for transhuman readers. They bring up enough intriguing problems and ideas to keep our discussions flowing for a long time.