7th Sigma, by Steven Gould

7th Sigma, by Steven Gould

Steven Gould has managed the rare achievement among current writers of having one of his books on my all-time top 20 list of favourite SFF novels (since expanded to 27 - see the list in the left column of this blog). This is his best-known work, Jumper, which I reviewed on this blog in February 2010 along with its sequel, Reflex, and the disappointing film version of Jumper. I have also reviewed another of his novels, Wildside. The author is one of the best storytellers I know. He has a plain and simple writing style which puts the reader right into the tale, identifying strongly with the protagonist, and once I pick up one of his books I find it very difficult to put down again.

This remains true of his latest novel, 7th Sigma. As with most of his other stories, the protagonist is a teenage boy of unusual maturity. Much SF of the action-adventure type has featured a "competent man" as the hero, someone who succeeds through being smarter, braver and usually tougher than his opposition (in a different genre, James Bond is a classic example). Gould specialises in the "competent adolescent" or, in 7th Sigma, "super-competent" in the form of Kim Creighton, who later adopts the name Kimball Monroe.

At the start of the story, set some time in the near future, Kim is a thirteen year old street kid living alone in "the territory", a large area of south-west USA which has become mysteriously infested with self-replicating robotic "bugs"; mechanical flying insects with a passion for consuming metal which is so great that they will fly through anything to reach it, including people. Carrying any metal means almost certain death so those who still live in the territory have had to adopt a drastically modified metal-free lifestyle. Equally mysteriously, and fortunately for civilisation, something keeps the bugs within this clearly-defined area.

Kim falls in with Ruth Monroe, an aikido instructor who has entered the territory in order to set up a new dojo, and he becomes her student. Subsequently, he is recruited as a spy for the authorities, helping to track down criminals. The story concerns Kim's varied adventures as he grows into a young man, developing both his aikido, espionage and meditation abilities while learning how to live in his strange world. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it is in effect based on Rudyard Kipling's famous early-20th century novel Kim.

7th Sigma is unlike Gould's other novels in that it does not reach a conclusion and is clearly intended to be just the start of a series. The pace is relatively slow by his standards, although the plot becomes episodic in the latter part of the book as some three years pass. The focus is very much on the character of Kim and the events which befall him, the SF element in the form of the bugs remaining in the background with few developments or revelations concerning it. I found the character of Kim to be rather unbelievable because he is so good - he never seems to suffer from teenage angst and is always rational, polite, forward-thinking, very mature, courageous, smarter than anyone else and a superb fighter. For all these reasons I found it less satisfying than Gould's other novels; however, it is just as un-put-downable and I read it in only two sessions. I am looking forward to the next volume.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)