The Big Idea: Steven Gould

What do the adventures of a young man in a classic of 19th century colonial literature have to do with the adventures of another, entirely different person in the fictional American Southwest of the mid-21st century? If you ask Steven Gould, he’ll say: quite a bit, actually. Steve’s here to explain why, and how it informs 7th Sigma, his latest — and very cool — science fiction novel.


I wanted to do my own take of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It is by no means the first attempt to do so in Science Fiction. I first encountered the plot in Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy before I’d read the original, and you can see it in the early planetary romances of Leigh Brackett and many other works where humans (stand-ins for the British in India) have colonized other cultures. I had written over half of this book when Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book ,a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, came out and I felt reassured it was still possible today.

However, I certainly didn’t feel I knew enough about India to tell the story there, but one of the great appeals of Kim is the vast immiscible swirl of cultures and religious and places that is India. I wanted my book to have at least a feeling of that setting. And so I tried to create one in my own science fictional way.

7th Sigma takes place 30 or so years after the American Southwest, specifically New Mexico and Arizona, suffer an infestation of self-replicating, metal-eating, bug-sized robots. In order of preference these robo-bugs go after crushed robo-bugs (they swarm them and their immediate area), electromagnetic radiation (radios, active-electronic circuits, power lines), and metal (essentially any metal that could be detected by a sensitive, tunable metal detector). They avoid water. Doesn’t destroy them, but they avoid it.

Humans are essentially just thicker air as far as the bugs are concerned. If there is metal behind you and a bug in front of you, it will go through you to get to the metal. If you have metal fillings, crowns, braces, prosthetic joints, plates, pins, screws, pacemakers, or any other implantable electronics, the bugs will go for them and you will almost certainly not survive the experience.

Nevertheless, thirty years after bugs have reduced the cities, refineries, powers stations, and towns to bug-covered rubble, there is human occupation of the “territory.” These are people who live in new metal-free towns, using very old technology, adobe and rammed earth and obsidian flakes, and very new technology, ceramic blades and high tech glues and composites. Communication is done by very old methods (hand-carried messages), medium old tech (reflected sunlight telegraphy–heliographs), and high tech (Digital communication from buried bunkers shielded from the bugs by dirt, transmitted up fiber-optic cables to balloons in the upper atmosphere where the air is too thin for the bugs’ wings, and transmitted to satellites from the balloons with conventional directional radio.)

It was a culturally diverse area before the bugs and it’s become even more so groups seeking “simpler” lives without external “contamination” immigrate into the area and form their own communities. Some of these groups are rabidly intolerant. Some are happy to get along.

There is nothing covert about the novel’s relation to Kim. I quote from Kipling’s text at the beginning and before each section. My protagonist is a runaway, a seeker, an aikidoist, and an agent for the territorial government.

And his name is Kimble.

7th Sigma: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a preview. Visit Steven Gould’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Steven Gould”

  1. Kim was a great novel, and this book sounds worthwhile. The plots and setting s sound simple, but the story is always made or broken by How the author works within it to tell the story.

    I think I’ve read more “Big Idea” recommendations in the past two years than I’ve read recommendations from any other source.

  2. Indeed, this is a compelling precis, and “The Big Idea” has been a great stimulus both to reading and imagining stories of one’s own. It’s always a ready click for me when I’m browsing…

  3. if they avoid water, wouldn’t they avoid the ugly bags of mostly water?

    Hm, how does one solve the problem of metal-eating metal-bugs…..

    rat traps?

    How strong are these things?

    How about a strong signal antenna transmitting right in front of a wood chipper encased in concrete. And a high speed blower (made out of plastic and rubber) that blows them into the chipper.

    Water doesn’t harm them. That’s a bummer. One could have all sorts fo fun with lawn sprinklers and garden hoses for the high tech zombie apocalypse.

  4. Lots and lots and lots of things aren’t fond of water but don’t avoid animals. Most of them ARE animals. My dogs, for instance.

  5. if they avoid water, wouldn’t they avoid the ugly bags of mostly water?

    I imagine that they avoid water in that they don’t like living in damp conditions (because they rust?). Which presumably explains why they are limited to the American Southwest rather than taking over the world. Burrowing through the occasional chest wall wouldn’t be so bad because they could always dry off afterwards.

  6. I have Steven Gould on my list of authors I regularly scan for new works so this would be an automatic purchase for me. I save my literary criticism for after I’ve gotten the enjoyment out of the work of authors I know won’t let me down.

  7. Another book to read while I recuperate from complications from my triple bypass.

    I love the Weird West settings and am looking forward to picking up this book.

  8. In re:
    “…transmitted up fiber-optic cables to balloons in the upper atmosphere where the air is too thin for the bugs’ wings, and transmitted to satellites from the balloons with conventional directional radio.”
    Could the bugs ditch the wings and just climb up the fiber-optic cable to joyride the balloons and munch the radio, antenna, etc.? If they retained the wings but climbed anyway, could the high-altitude launchpoint serve to spread them as far as the prevailing winds would carry? (Do the fiber-optic cables go to or past jet-stream altitude? Could be a far carry.)

  9. Hm, they might be able to climb the fiber cable, but if they’re fairly “dumb”, why would they? If they’re drawn like moths to a flame, why would they follow a cable into the blackness unless they were smart enough to know there was “light” at the end?

    On the other hand, it gets pretty damn cold up there, and most electronics would fail at those temps. Then again, self replicating semiconductors just makes my head spin, knowing how complicated it is to make a fab/plant.

    I wonder if the bugs are solar powered or chemical powered or organic fuel powered or what. Not a lot of grass in the desert to munch on. And most metal I know of isn’t naturally exothermic.

  10. Greg @12
    I was thinking of bugs as having hidden depths. Like, say, termites or bees, they have an everyday behavioral suite (find/eat metal, punch through dratted ambulatory waterbags always getting in the way, etc.) but on some stimulus (elapsed time, population density, exhaustion of local metals, etc.) switch behavioral mode to migratory — climb as high as possible, launch into highest wind, do random weird things that might have a payoff. Also, might they spawn microscopic forms small enough to ride radio waves up to satellites (assuming minimal atmospheric density at launch)? Inject into aurorae? Hopscotch up to the solar wind? What’s the whole lifecycle? Enough for a sequel . . . ?

  11. Okay, I’m sure what I’m about to point out is not Mr. Gould’s doing and off-topic besides, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading the book, but …

    Is anyone else confused and/or irritated that the blurb on the cover is about a *different* *book*? Why the eff should I care what Publisher’s Weekly thought about some other book?

  12. Steven Gould rocks! I’m looking forward to 7th Sigma, plus the new audio editions for Jumper and Reflex. If I had time to reread Helm, Wildside, and Blind Waves right now . . . sigh. :-)

  13. OC@13: The design possibilities are slightly addictive, I admit. Then again, when I win the lottery, I’m going to quit my job and build giant hydraulic robots the size of a car.

    Bearpaw@14: I read that blurb three times, was still confused. But “Griffin’s Story” is a another novel by Steven Gould, so maybe its advertising the other book? Dunno.

  14. “Jumper” was an awesome novel, at the time it came out I thought it was one of the best ever stories of a young man with daddy issues coming of age in a SF-y situation.

    Then “Wildside” came out, another great story of a young man with daddy issues coming of age in a SF-y situation.

    “Gravity Waves” rocked, and if nothing else had nothing to do with young men or coming of age.

    “The Helm” was a young man with daddy issues coming of age in a SF-y situation. but with Akido!

    I just about finished “Seventh Sigma” A young man runs away from his abusive father, comes of age in a SF-y situation. With even more Akido. Still a rockin’ story.

  15. hm, if you were ‘all natural’ with no metallic implants, I wonder if you could walk around the bugs with a big wooden mallet smashing them. how smart are.they? do they defend others of their own kind?

    can they cut through plastic? glass? concrete? can you catch one and put it in a glass jar?

    and how do they know a dead bug from a live bug so they dont destroy other operative bugs? could that IFF system be hacked? could you put that special signal on your metal car and trick them into thinking its just a whole lot of little bugs that all work and leave you alone?

    could you catch the bugs, remove thepart that attacks metal, reder them harmless, and then cover your car with them? would they cut through operative bugs to get to the metal?

    if not defense then an offensive maneuvar would be to figure out how they determine live/dead bugs, then do whatever to make that test always come back ‘dead’. turn the bugs on themselves cause they all think theyre all dead.

    if theyre simple machines, it should be a simple test and a simple hack. if they are intelligent machines, well, then I would think they would be burying underground following that fiber optic cable to the juicy metal behind it.

  16. I know the story behind this book (retelling of Kim) before I read it and I was afraid that it was going to be ponderous. Kipling is serious business! But I really enjoyed 7th Sigma and have bought a copy for my 17-year-old son, who I’m sure will love it.

  17. Weapon? If one could toss, say, a brass washer onto one’s enemy, the bugs would go kinetic and perforate said enemy. The trick, of course, would be transporting the brass washer without being lethally swarmed oneself. Assume the bugs don’t react to metal oxides, sulfides, etc. Construct a cartridge (ceramic? glass?) holding a washer’s worth of rust and something (binary?) that, on impact, will ignite and burn blast-furnace hot, producing a bead of molten iron (or maybe mercury? from powdered cinnabar?). Fire this cartridge using something like a crossbow or composite bow or sling. The impact might only bruise the target but would be followed by the perforating horde. Shotgun-like damage; not for precision sniping. Hmmm . . . Don’t have the novel. Is Gould ahead of me here?

  18. Stephen Gould is one of my favorite authors, and it’s CRYING SHAME what Hollywood did to “Jumper”. I hope he got a huge stinking pile of cash to compensate for what they did to that classic.

    Probably the thing I like most about SG’s writing is his perfectly rigorous extrapolation: “Given THIS, then WHAT?” Very fine, and old-fashioned in the best of senses.

    Best of luck to him!