Avon/EOS, 1999, 371 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79292-3
Despite what naysayers might say, the science-fiction bookshelves of your nearby bookstore have never been so attractively filled with dozens of potentially interesting books. This diversity, unfortunately, has made it more difficult than ever to find the really good stuff. Today’s savvy SF reader must learn to negotiate the thin line between hype and actual value, between signal to noise. In this game of equilibrium, it doesn’t take much to drown out any potential interest.
That happened in early 1998 as I was at the local SF bookstore considering my next few purchases. An unusually-colored hardcover attracted my eye: Eric S. Nylund’s Signal to Noise. Unfortunately, the jacket copy began by claiming that the novel was the first instance of a new emerging genre—hyperpunk.
That was far too much marketing jargon crammed in a single word. I placed the book back on the shelf.
A year -and several good reviews- later, I finally bought the paperback copy, noticing that the “hyperpunk” blurb has disappeared from the cover. Strangely, after reading the novel I find myself in agreement that, yes, Signal to Noise is truly “hyperpunk”… or cyberpunk pushed to hyperspace.
Jack Potter is a typical cyber-protagonist: A young single male computer expert trying to survive in a world dominated by gigantic corporations barely restrained by governments. So far so cyberpunk. But the fun starts when Jack discovers a way to instantly communicate with aliens light-years away. The aliens are traders, and for their first swap, Jack gives them the human DNA code. They send back “an enhanced version.”
Shades of A for Andromeda, yet? Before long, Jack’s the Favorite Person of at least two intelligence services, two alien races, several venture capitalists and assorted other bad guys. They implant stuff in him, give him enough money to go in business, double-cross him a few times and wring him dry of any further alien trading results…
Intricately plotted and not without some occasional confusion, Signal to Noise signals the arrival of a potentially major new talent on the SF scene. This isn’t Nylund’s first novel (despite holding two science degrees, he previously wrote three previous fantasy books), but his first full-length SF effort displays a mastery of plotting and hard sciences that’s simply too intriguing to be ignored.
His writing style combines simplicity and density for a satisfying reading experience. His characters are believable, with some special attention given to the flawed protagonist. His plotting is filled with surprises, passing through a few paradigms before the large-scale finale. A few late-book choices left me puzzled (the selection of sidekicks, for instance) until I realized that Signal to Noise sets up a sequel. This usually irks me, but Signal to Noise can stand alone by itself. It’s my duty as a reviewer, however, to suggest that shrewd readers should wait until they have both books before reading Signal to Noise.
Fast-paced, imaginative and exciting, Signal to Noise is exactly what readers should expect from a good SF novel. Ignore the “hyperpunk” hype; this book is pure signal to the background noise of your bookstore. I really look forward to the sequel, and anything else from Eric S. Nylund.