Whither & Yawn

Another trip down the aisles in the local library, picking up science fiction and fantasy by authors I’m not familiar with. Today I had a look at 7th Sigma by Steven Gould. More than a look — I read through 135 of the 385 pages before I gave it up as a waste of time.

There’s a place in the world, I’m sure, for picaresque coming-of-age novels. They’re not in vogue these days, and especially not in vogue in the science fiction genre, action adventure being more the trendy thing, but I’m happy to applaud the unexpected broad-mindedness of someone at Tor Books. Evidently they’re willing to look beyond the usual confines of the genre.

The problem with 7th Sigma bifurcates, depending on whether we view it as action adventure or as a picaresque coming-of-age novel. As action adventure, it’s an utter flop. If it’s not intended to be read as action adventure, it’s an entirely different kind of flop.

The story is set in the American Southwest, in the near future. The SF premise is that some small flying creatures — possibly “AI robots” would be a better term — have gotten loose and spread across a considerable range. They’re referred to as bugs. The origin of the bugs is unknown, and nobody seems to be much concerned to figure out either where they came from or how to exterminate them. Also, they don’t seem to be threatening the rest of the country or the rest of the world.

The bugs eat metal. They apparently reproduce by parthenogenesis; when one has eaten enough metal, it turns into two.

As a result of this infestation, the remaining residents of the Southwest can’t use anything made of metal. They ride horses. Long-distance messages have to be sent out to the rest of the country by heliograph, a device that is not described but likely involves mirrors and Morse code.

This could be a fine premise for a plotted novel — but alas, 7th Sigma has no detectable plot. It’s a string of episodes (thus, picaresque) with no rising action or ongoing tension to weld the episodes together. Such a novel can succeed brilliantly; Don Quixote is the best example of that. But it will succeed only to the extent that the lead character is memorable, the episodes themselves memorable, and the writing thoughtful and well polished.

The story in 7th Sigma, such as it is, involves a 13-year-old runaway boy named Kimble. He’s taken in by an older woman named Ruth, who teaches aikido. Neither of them is highly memorable. It would be stretching a point to say that they’re even three-dimensional.

The story, at least up through page 135, moves through several unrelated episodes.

On the road to the creekside land Ruth has bought, our dynamic duo comes upon two men who have been killed by bugs. It seems the bugs don’t like being attacked. Inadvertently stepping on one is an attack. When attacked, they swarm. That seems ominous, but there’s no follow-up. We never see them swarm. This is not Hitchcock’s The Birds.

On reaching their homestead, Ruth and Kimble cleverly bury the remaining junk metal cluttering up the place so as to encourage the bugs to move on. They start building an aikido dojo out of mud brick. Soon a local drunk propositions Ruth because he thinks she’s a whore, and then starts stealing food from their property. They deal with him. He’s tried and convicted, and he’s gone.

Next, a nearby rancher is losing sheep to wild dogs. Kimble is enlisted to stay up all night and scare off the dogs by beating on a log. Soon a pack of dogs attacks, dragging down a sheep before Kimble can chase them off. A few local men band together, track them to a stand of brush, drive them out, and stab them with plastic spears, all but one dog, who seems to be made of metal. Ominous — a large metal beast! But it runs off, and we hear no more of it.

Then Ruth gets asthma, and Kimble has to ride off to the nearest town to get her some medicine. On the way back, he falls in with some other travelers and they’re attacked by bandits. Ooh, bandits! Threatening! But the Rangers drive off the bandits (with a little help from Kimble), and that’s the end of that episode. During the entire trip, nobody has encountered a single bug, much less the big metal dog.

Then a friend of Ruth’s visits them for a week. (Still no bugs.) The friend brings a young woman named Athena, who has a bad attitude. But after a few days they leave. Again, nothing has happened. At the point where I stopped reading, the kindly Ranger officer has enlisted Kimble to make friends with some lads in a nearby town in order to figure out who is importing methamphetamines into the territory. Bugs, a local thug, a metal dog, a girl with an attitude, and now a drug gang.

Paging forward, I find that the drug sting takes up less than ten pages; Kimble manages to solve the case in short order, and without any on-screen action at all. The whole episode is handled in the form of a report he makes to the Ranger. Following that, there seems to be a brief school-bullying episode, in which Kimble has no trouble coming out on top because of his aikido training.

I’d call it much ado about nothing, except that there’s not much ado either.

I’d love to pivot and think of this as a picaresque coming-of-age novel, but such a novel requires, I think, more colorful characters, and also a higher level of stylistic sophistication than Gould is able to muster. His characters are flat. The sheep rancher I mentioned earlier? Turning back to page 65, where he is introduced, I find no description of him at all — not a word. Tall, short, fat, thin, young, old, has a mustache, wears a hat, chews tobacco, missing teeth, odd speech patterns, conspicuous facial scars? Who knows? His name is Rooster, so we might imagine he’s a redhead, but even that detail is missing from the text.

When the ranchers set out to track the wild dogs, we meet two more men, Barney Spinoza and Frank Werito, and again, not a single solitary word about their appearance or mannerisms. The writing is entirely colorless.

Here’s the icing on the cake. On page 123, Kimble (who is 13, remember) is skinny-dipping in the pond with a young woman who is possibly eight or ten years older than him. And Gould reports, “He tried to think pure, well unsexual, thoughts, but his mind wasn’t cooperating.”

Steven, Steven, Steven — his mind? Really? Any other writer in the world would have written, “his body wasn’t cooperating.”

After which Kimble and the young woman engage in water horseplay, “with great gouts of water, and more than one dunking,” without a word as to where he puts his hands while dunking her, or how he avoids nudging her with his … er, with his mind while they’re wrestling. Nor is there any indication that he suffers, afterward, from even a single impure thought.

Coming of age? I don’t think so.

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