Nanotime, Bart Kosko

Avon, 1997, 311 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97466-5

Whoah! Where did that book come from?

I mean; as a pretty wired-in hard-SF reader, I expect to be aware of most of the writers on the market. I’ve got contacts, reading lists, hangouts for recommendations: I don’t expect brand new writers to be sprung on me like that. Prior to cracking open Nanotime‘s spine, I didn’t know about Bart Kosko.

Now I’m wondering why I haven’t heard more of him. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to stem from the fannish community: I can’t find any listing of him at a science-fiction convention, and indeed most of the web hits I get seem to indicate that Kosko hails from the futurology field, not the literary side of the SF genre.

Well, bully for him. Regardless of the origin of a writer, I’m always glad to read a science-fiction with strong extrapolation, and if Nanotime has one quality, it’s in presenting to us tons of new gadgets. Kosko’s 2030 is a dangerously unstable time. It’s the end of the age of oil, and the usual players aren’t too happy about it. Israel and the Arab countries are still looking at each other with angry eyes, terrorists are everywhere, information technology is now exquisitely complex, sophisticated weapons like cruise missiles are now cheaper (a mere $10,000) than the means to defend against them and the United States now has a 51st state, Southern California. Everything costs more and is taxed beyond belief.

In the midst of all this, one man still wants to save the world. John Grant think he’s got the perfect solution of the world’s energy problem: A molecule that splits water (!) to generate cheap, cheap, cheap hydrogen to be used as fuel. But as the novel begins, a Saudi missile strike on Israel (in retaliation to a nuclear terrorist act cleverly manipulated to look like the work of Israeli Greens) destroys the only facility in the world willing to test his ideas. Before long, though, Grant has other problems: A master terrorist has taken over his wife (literally), the US government thinks he’s a traitor and the Israeli themselves have other plans for him. It escalates. Everything escalates.

Cyberpunk usually conjures up images of virtual reality and criminals using tech to their own purposes. Nanotime certainly qualifies when is comes to VR content, but takes the paradigm up to the next level: here, terrorists use tech to their own purposes, and the result isn’t as much a high-tech noir novel than a high-tech global thriller smacking of Clancy with nanotech. (It’s no accident if Clancy’s own Sum of All Fears figures in the book’s bibliography.)

Kosko has a good eye for gadgets and the occasional good scene (remember the staple scene in cyberpunk literature where our protagonist is implanted with nanodevices? Well Nanotime has one in which the protagonist’s skull is sawn open… even as he’s conscious of it. Good luck stopping reading after that) but there are a number of annoying flaws in his novel that grate a bit. I can certainly forgive the portrayal of the protagonist as a rugged, two-fisted individualist in the grand tradition of typical SF heroes. But what’s more annoying is the lack of integration of the gadgets. Nanotech, VR and AI all prefigure prominently here, but in stunted niches. Why is there a super-acid that eats an entire ship, and no super-acid that can do the same for an oil slick? Why limit the use of AIs to personal assistants? Where are the silly tech derivatives to these? If the Internet revolution has proven one thing, it’s that every possible permutation of a high-tech idea, no matter how silly, will get VC funding.

Furthermore, the novel has an annoying tendency to cut away from the main narrative to nearly-useless side-vignettes featuring characters not worth getting excited about. The ending is also a problem, almost as if the author simply threw everything up in the air (including our protagonist, in what is almost literally a cliffhanger) for the sake of closure and refused to see beyond the next step. Frustrating, especially given the build-up; destroying things is easy; building them after that is the hard part.

Still, there’s way too much original stuff in Nanotime, from a writer-scientist whose latter silence in the SF field is puzzling. When is the next novel due? And why hasn’t Nanotime attained cult status?

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