Book Review: 7th Sigma

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

If you are a writer who goes to conventions, you will rapidly ascertain that there is very little correlation between how much you like someone and how much you like their work.  This gets awkward when you find someone who you adore personally, but whose fiction you cannot stand.
Steven Gould, author of Jumper, is one of the nicest guys in sci-fi cons – quietly witty, fun to talk to, perfectly willing to apologize for the wretched movie based upon his book, which he had nothing to do with.  Which is why it’s such an extra-special triumph to report that his latest novel, 7th Sigma, is as fine as his company.
The pitch for 7th Sigma is nothing like the book itself, which is good.  The pitch, designed to get you through the door, is, “Welcome to the territory. Leave your metal behind, all of it. The bugs will eat it, and they’ll go right through you to get it… Don’t carry it, don’t wear it, and for god’s sake don’t come here if you’ve got a pacemaker.”  Which makes it sound like this book is all about battling the ferocious metal-eating piranha bugs that bore through human flesh – a good hook to grab teenaged boys.
But no.  The bugs are simply an excuse to transplant modern sensibilities and knowledge into a frontier lifestyle – what would it be like if we had to live with our medical knowledge and technology, but in a world without computers and construction equipment?  This isn’t a slam-bang action adventure, but rather a series of well-told incidents that outline the cleverness and compassion with which humanity survives in a world made new.  The cleverness inherent in the worldbuilding is filled with the kind of down-home, reassuring solutions that make you go, “No matter how bad things get, we’ll find a way to get by.”
Gould wisely avoids turning 7th Sigma into a Little House on the Prairie Clone by having the lead character Kimble, a young teenaged boy running away from his father, take up a job on an apprentice dojo.  As such, there are many localized lessons on Buddhism and martial arts philosophy from his teacher Ruth, all laced in with the endless chores one has to do to stay alive.  Kimble is a smart kid, sympathetic and brave, and as he learns how to fight, he learns when to fight, and eventually gets caught up in trying to remove the drug dealers and pimps that are making life worse in the territories.
The absolutely brilliant thing about 7th Sigma is that it wisely avoids any semblance of plot.  Which is to say that part of my love of 7th Sigma comes from its sleepy rhythm; each chapter is a parable, mostly self-contained, and it would have been all too easy to knit it into a big slam-bang freight train of a plot that would have moved the story along but lost most of its charm.  No, like All Things Great and Small, each chapter’s an anecdote of Kimble having a mini-adventure, and there are themes that overlap and amplify to provide a sense of movements, but there’s no point at which the Great Bug-Generator is found and everyone must take up arms to defeat the boss monster before it explodes and destroys the world.  This is all intensely personal, at a low level.
(Not to toot my own horn too much, but if you liked the day-to-day rhythm of my Little House-inspired space station novella “Sauerkraut Station,” which came out last week, I almost guarantee you’ll love 7th Sigma.)
The only real ding about 7th Sigma is that it ends with a lot of questions unanswered – not personal questions, since Kimble’s personal journey is wrapped up, but this book is clearly sequel-bait in the sense that hey, you know those crazy metal-bugs, there’s clearly more to tell.  And that’s fine.  When a book’s this good, I don’t begrudge the sequel-baitness of it, but rather look at it as the first salvo in a series of tales I’m quite anxious to hear the rest of.
In the meantime, I’ll just say that 7th Sigma has been responsible for a lot of hot water usage around here, as I devoured a quarter of it at a time in the bathtub, then handed it off to my wife for her bath.  We’re wrinkled, but happy.

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