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.