"Limit of Vision," Linda Nagata

Pros: Fascinating shades of gray and complex characterization; interesting science
Cons: Unfinished details; some unavoidable exposition
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 8/7/2001

It’s been a while since I regularly read hard science fiction. It used to be the staple of my reading library, back when I held hours at what was then (and might still be now, for all I know) the largest publicly-accessible science fiction library in the world, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I always used to think I’d end up a science fiction writer. Instead, somewhere along the way I got sidetracked by horror. When horror is done well, it can be more visceral. More shocking. More gut-wrenching. I guess I like those qualities in a book.

I’ve recently picked up a few science fiction books again. Among them is Linda Nagata’s “Limit of Vision.” The picture on the cover of this hard-back is beautiful and exotic, and immediately piqued my curiosity. You see a swamp beneath a yellowing sky. A narrow boat is poled by a man in shorts and a T-shirt. Sitting with him in the boat are two women, one of whom appears to be taking readings with some sort of electronic equipment. Above them arches a mysterious, disturbing, and very alien figure, like a giant spider – only not at all like a giant spider.

With a picture like that, how could I not pick up this book?

The Plot

There are these things called LOVs (for Limit of Vision, because they’re so small that people can only barely see them). They were created from bioengineered neurons and have demonstrated some unusual properties, such as the ability to form colonies and develop specialized functions. (I have a love of biopsychology, so how could I not be intrigued?) Because a completely separate biomedical experiment went disastrously wrong not long ago, the US government placed a two-year moratorium on the development of all artificial life forms. The LOVs were isolated on a space station. A team of three ambitious scientists, however, smuggled a few to earth and continued experimenting with them. Until one of the three scientists dies.

This sparks a chain of events that will embroil the entire world in the suddenly-accelerated development of a new life form. The most advanced of the LOV colonies on the space station causes its part of the space station to separate off and crash into the earth, in Vietnam. That’s when a journalist gets involved, and a mysterious cult of children following an entity called only “Mother Tiger.”

Shades of Gray

This is no black-and-white morality play. Most plots like this seem to be either of the “scientific exploration is BAD BAD BAD” variety, or of the “only superstitious peasants would stand in the way of progress” variety (that’s a bit exagerrated, but you get the point). Ms. Nagata instead draws us into a much more realistic world, one where scientific progress brings both danger and discovery. One where making decisions too quickly on either side of things can cause disaster. One where we need caution, but we also need the aid of science.

Are the LOVs “good?” Are they “bad?” To tell the truth, I’ve finished the book and there still isn’t a definitive answer to that question. I like that.

In fact, almost nothing in this book is black and white. It’s one great big mass of grays. Many of the characters have suspect motives or selfish aims – and those are the “good” guys. They’re only nominally labeled the good guys, for that matter, because they’re the main characters; this story could easily have been told from a point of view that would have made them seem like villains. The same goes for the opposition – they can be seen as saviors or demons.

Ms. Nagata excels at creating believable characters, perhaps exactly because they are not black and white. Everyone has motives and reasons for their actions, even if those motives and reasons are not readily apparent. No one is a stereotype or a one-dimensional convenient plot point. Because of this, it’s also much more difficult than usual to predict where the plot will go, making this book fresh and interesting.

Science Fiction

Although I hardly speak from authority, the science of the book is wonderful. To my untrained eye it came across as believable. It’s fascinating to watch the changes the LOVs go through, and to see how those changes come about. It’s amazing to see a human-created artificial life form that really does seem alien.

The book is not predictable and boring. This is no formulaic novel, or transparent showcase for a pet scientific theory. If you’re a science fiction fan you’ll probably find yourself reading onward just to find out where the science of it goes. Even if you’re not a science buff you’ll be able to make enough sense out of things to feel content. The science is a part of the plot, not the plot itself.

Unfinished Details

The only thing that at all bothered me was the fact that this feels like it needs another book. We don’t end at the end of the story – we end at the beginning of another. This is both pro and con, however. Few stories in real life have a perfect ending-place; there are always unfinished threads. So on the one hand this makes the story all the more realistic. On the other hand there were questions raised in the book that still don’t have answers, and that’s slightly frustrating. There are still mysteries to be solved.

I hope this means that Ms. Nagata will write a sequel. If she is planning on that, at least she didn’t do the annoying thing that some authors do: stop dead in the middle of the story and leave you hanging. She wrapped things up in a manner that is almost satisfying, yet leaves us hungry for more.

The Limits of Our Vision

Vision is a theme worth paying attention to in this book: from the LOVs themselves, to the “farsights” that everyone uses (a computer integrated with a sort of sunglasses-like interface), to the ability of both the characters and the reader to anticipate and predict the future. Ms. Nagata takes us on a beautiful tour of the limits of human vision.

This is an unequivocally fascinating book. It’s visceral, gut-wrenching, and (at times) a little bit shocking. The locales are engaging and unusual: Hawaii, Vietnam. The characters are wonderful. There are a few expositional chunks, but not many, and they’re presented and broken up well. I know that I, for one, will certainly be waiting to buy the sequel, should Ms. Nagata choose to write it.

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