Kathleen Ann Goonan

Review of
by Linda Nagata

Bantam Spectra April 1995
ISBN 0 553 56925 2
335 pp (cover says 320)

This review of THE BOHR MAKER, written shortly before it was released, was not published. By now, Linda has won the LOCUS award and has been compared to Bear, Niven, and Stapledon. Wow. You should read her complete works--THE BOHR MAKER, TECH-HEAVEN, and her newest, DECEPTION WELL, all from Bantam.

Linda Nagata's first novel, THE BOHR MAKER, is an assured, sharp, and fascinating foray into a future where molecular engineering is possible but legally limited. It highlights a battle between those concerned with preserving the Goddess--Gaia; nature--and those who live on the exhilarating edge of innovation, where the definition of what it means to be human is tested and expanded and possibly utterly changed.

The antagonists are evenly matched. Kirstin Adair, a seasoned police chief of immense power, intelligence, and conviction, squares off on the side of Gaia. She is utterly no-nonsense, somewhat sadistic, double-crossing--yet likable somehow for her chutzpah and commitment to creating a bulwark between nature and what she sees as Armageddon, the melding of human and machine intelligence.

Nikko, the creation of the man he calls his father, is programmed to expire very soon when the book opens. He was an experiment, time-limited by law, of a brilliant man, Fox Jiang-Tibayan, who has plenty of other fish to fry; namely, the preservation of Summer House. Summer House is a huge, wondrous, and beautifully depicted organic space habitat created entirely from code, clinging to an astroid. Nikko is hot on the trail of the Bohr Maker, named after its creator, a molecular device of enormous transformational power. With this he hopes to circumvent the legally proscribed death of his body and the wiping out of his code.

"At its essence, the Bohr Maker was a microscopic packet of instructions. But once the instructions were executed, it became a molecular communications and design system that would insinuate itself throughout the body and mind of a single host, resulting in profound physiological change. The host individual would own the talents of an expert in molecular design, along with the physical mechanisms to execute those designs."

Though identity can be easily flung hither and thither via the net and be incorporated in temporary bodies or in waiting nascent clones, death does exist; the law is particularly harsh about various infractions and is empowered to wipe out coded identity, and to seek it out wherever it may be hidden. Molecular engineering is allowable in perfecting human potential--correcting disease and the flaw of old age--but this is the work of legal Dull Intelligences. And, be this as it may, these boons are for the most part available only to Citizens of the Commonwealth. Citizens live primarily in the orbiting Celestial Cities. Unfortunate non-Citizens live in the Spill, on Earth, subsisting on "fluff" and whatever else they can scavenge or steal. They do not live long, and incorporate any stray manifestations of nanotechnology into a superstitious religion. For them, the Imperial highway, a mega-mile-high elevator, is but a myth, or the road their soul will travel when they die.

Thus, when Phousita, a former prostitute kept artificially tiny by illegal means, is suddenly infected with immense power, she believes that she has become a witch. From being an inconsequential everywoman she is hurled into the heart of a conflict she could not have previously dreamed of, and her growing ability to make her own decisions about the use of her powers is one of the most satisfactory aspects of the book.

The search for the Bohr Maker provides a rough-and tumble chase scene through the Spill, space, and Summer House which is tight and sparkling. By the end of it the personalities and values of the main characters have undergone positive changes, for the most part, and the evenly matched tension between natural enemies Nikko and Kirsten is powerfully maintained right up to the final instant.

Nagata has created some science fictional dazzlers in THE BOHR MAKER, in particular Summer House and its fate. And, most importantly, she has brought into sharp relief the difficulty of limiting a viable nanotechnology while at the same time meeting head-on the question of whether or not a viable AI is actually possible. She has given us a "man," Nikko, a completely believable self-aware creature created entirely by another person. Fox and his "son" strongly challenge the creative monopoly of Gaia.

It may be that a hundred years from now such stories will be looked upon as quaint fairy tales from The Time Before It Changed. For now, Nagata makes fine science fiction using the information at hand.

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Last Update 11/10/98
Copyright 1995 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.