Main characters: JUSTIN SMITH - Everyman Californian engineer turned leader of the rebel government. STEVE DUONG - Vietnamese prodigy who discovered quantum gateways and substrate computation. SAMANTHA WEST - Justin’s wife, well-bred daughter of LA movie producer. Expert on economics and diplomatic leader. KATHERINE SMITH-WEST - ‘KAT’ – Precocious 10 yo daughter of Justin and Samantha. DYLAN FOSTER - Samantha’s former abusive boyfriend, exiled to prison planet Paradise for treason, leader of the murderous outlaw tribe there — “Malik of Paradise” PROF. WILSON - Researcher in Artificial Life simulation of natural evolution and environments, advisor to Justin and Steve. Gay and HIV+, lost his partner to AIDS in the1980s. NASA astronaut Madiha Rahama (“call me Maddy”) arrives on New Earth to assist Steve Duong and Justin Smith in a mission to visit a ruined spacecraft orbiting in a system that appears to have been destroyed 200 years ago by Shrivers, automated killing machines that may have ended many civilizations. Surveys have shown no active technical civilizations in the entire galaxy, when there should be hundreds. The mystery of the Shrivers and the purpose of their extermination campaign will deepen throughout, and is only explained after Justin and Steve have halted the Shrivers’ effort to exterminate humanity. Maddy teaches them to use the spacesuits, and they review surveys of the ruined planet (“Ruined Planet #237”) — nuked, frozen, then thawed, lifeless except for a few hardy deep ocean creatures. Mounds of rubble are the remains of cities, with constant storms and high levels of radioactivity. Steve, Justin, and Maddy suit up and transport to the only nearly-intact ship in system orbit, where sensors have detected an energy-using entity, an organic ship computer. The computer’s structure and functioning can’t be determined from scans, and its organic nature suggests moving it to New Earth for examination might kill it or create a biohazard. On entering the computer room, they are sickened by some direct neural interference. In a few moments the computer has determined how to interface with their neural pathways and transmits the captain’s final log, which they experience as a sensory-recording: The alien Commander Kint, a female of a communal species of intelligent land-faring cephalopods, directs the Battle for Homeworld against the invading Shrivers (so named after a caste of cleaning slaves.) Their colony planets have all been destroyed and the invaders are untouched. The invaders seem to be robotic, with a technological advantage that makes them impervious to weapons. They vanquish the defenders, and atomic bombardment destroys all life on the planet. The boarding party wakes from the recording and attempts to connect the ship computer with an interface to the waiting substrate-resident AIs, who plan to talk to it and look through its records, but something goes wrong and the ship computer shuts down and dissolves into goo. Excerpt from an article by former BBC reporter Amanda Sundaram-Smythe which explains the background. Back on New Earth, the threat posed by the Shrivers is analyzed. Justin takes his 10-year-old daughter Katherine to visit the cenotaph in the park, and explains to her that each of the glowing names represents someone who died when the rebels took control. They often died because of some error or accident, but he still feels responsible, and wants her to feel it, too. He tells her she has been chosen to have the power of programming the AIs, but her brother has not, and that it is an enormous responsibility he expects her to live up to. And the Shriver threat means they have to be vigilant. Scene shifts to Paradise: the planet of exile, where Dylan Foster, former compatriot of the rebels turned traitor, has taken control of the original groups of exiles by killing the leader of the Islamist tribes. He calls himself Malik and runs the tribe as a kind of biker gang, enslaving and killing most new exiles. But recently the area where new exiles are transported to has expanded in size and his tribe can no longer intercept them all. Dylan wonders if they realize the jailors are recreating the conditions of Old Earth. Dylan’s first wife has her eye on one of the new recruits. On Jefferson, the colony planet designated for US-origin colonists, Ethan (who we met as a child leaving Los Angeles in the last book) visits home and his father after a few years of being on New Earth as a student. Discussion of land development and settlement issues, and the girlfriend left behind vs. his new interest in Aliyah, who we also met in the last book. Back on New Earth, Prof. Wilson sees the doctor and hears that his HIV scan continues to show him free of the virus. He remembers when Steve developed the scan to remove harmful viruses hiding in the body, and the other treatments that have partly rejuvenated him. He meets his new husband for lunch. On Jefferson, Aliyah (also shown leaving Chicago as a child) is visiting her family in the beach town of Garvey, settled by black separatists and Black Muslims. Her family is increasingly worried about the social environment as more fundamentalist Muslims have tipped the balance in the town. Aliyah is hassled by a group of male enforcers when she wears too-skimpy clothing to visit a friend. She calls in her AI Guardian for help, and Substrate Security intervenes to warn the men to leave her alone, as is her right. Back on New Earth, there is growing discord about the delay in releasing point-to-point transport for all, which would make most ground transportation unnecessary. Governments are delaying and asking for help in enforcing their immigration and criminal codes. Grey Tribe programmers are unhappy about not having access to the underlying substrate programming—they have only been given crippled access via a high-level-language and restricted APIs. Kuklov, their leader, suggests giving them more code examples and letting them propose new code to be passed on by the Steves and Justin, or designated successors. Justin okays this idea but has misgivings. Samantha, Justin, and Jim McDonald (head of Substrate Security) discuss the distressing situation on Paradise. Justin is annoyed that what he predicted has come to pass—because they allowed researchers to record what is happening there, they will be held responsible for what happens there. The atrocities and the fate of children starting to be born there are two big issues they can’t ignore, so Justin decides to look into sterilizing the transportees and breaking up Dylan’s tribe so it can’t dominate the planet. Samantha and Justin’s daughter Katherine (Kat) is going over the meaning of David Bowie’s “Heroes” lyrics with her AI tutor, Socrates. Shown film of people being machine-gunned to death while trying to escape through the Berlin Wall, she wonders how humans can be so mean. Socrates discusses what “romantic” means, and how Romeo and Juliet were caught up in the kind of romantic dream that led to Communism’s dream of fellowship and plenty, which evolved into totalitarian dictatorship and killed millions. The “Tierra Paradox” — Justin and Steve question how it can be that the substrate is not already chock-full of AIs and self-reproducing code. Along with the Fermi Paradox, it means that someone or something(s) are policing the substrate and keeping it mostly empty. Steve suggests the likely consequences of a substrate full of rogue code would be destruction of the emergent physical properties of the universe as they know it. Samantha and Wendy, the trans fashionista and business expert, meet in the Manhattan office of the Substrate Foundation, which they established to plow back proceeds of design patents into research and retraining. They discuss how they deal with family and work, and how artists and creators will be compensated in the era of replicators. On Jefferson, Ethan and his dad are called to talk down a friend of his father’s who has holed up with guns and his younger children after one of his older daughters reported sexual abuse. The Sheriff calls in Substrate Security, and the man is transported to psych eval holding without loss of life. Ethan has to handle his former Jefferson girlfriend’s jealousy when she realizes he has a new girlfriend (Aliyah) at school on New Earth. Justin and Steve meet to discuss the search for volumes of space hidden from substrate observation — three are found. They decide to send a probe into the most interesting area, which can’t be communicated with by substrate or radio. Probe will be transported and arrive at near-light speed to traverse the area, aiming to flyby any civilized planet gathering data, which they will read from its memory after it leaves the protected zone. The probe will carry a computer with a stripped-down substrate AI to carry out its mission; all of its memories tying it to earth have been deleted. The probe enters the system and detects emissions from a large ice planet — warm oceans beneath the ice are the likely cradle of life. The system is crisscrossed with paths of packages sent by linear accelerator launchers. The probe is detected on close flyby and attacked by beam weapons, but escapes. Meanwhile, someone beams the probe a message starting with mathematics. The probe exits the zone and is read by Steve from New Earth, then destroyed, but it turns out it was also read by a Shriver platform. The Shrivers interrogate a copy of the AI but get nothing. Deeply buried in its memory, however, they find a children’s picture book of the constellations as seen from Earth, which is enough to deduce Earth’s location. They send fleets to destroy the ice planet’s civilization and investigate Earth. We meet Melanie Chan, a deep-cover Chinese agent who’s been a trusted programmer on New Earth. Her father is being imprisoned by the Chinese and used to force her cooperation. She buries a trapdoor in the code of the substrate programs that move things which will allow the Chinese to use it to destroy anything at will. In return for giving the Chinese this program, she gets her father freed and leaves herself before her treason is discovered. But she has set a trap for the Chinese: their first use of her code triggers the destruction of their intelligence headquarters in Beijing. Socrates helps Kat with her study of alien artifacts so far discovered. The files on the stone platform her parents found on New Earth lead to a conversation, and Socrates introduces her to Eddie, the alien AI who discovered the Earth settlers that day. Eddie explains how he was left to watch a species which was then destroyed, and that he is supervised by the First and so was ordered not to speak after their initial contact. Eddie reports he has been released to speak by a faction of the First because of the grave danger to humanity posed by the Shrivers. Eddie speaks with Justin and Steve, and explains how the universe evolved. The First are the first civilization to upload into the substrate, and they almost wrecked the universe through unchecked duplication before developing mechanisms to keep the substrate clear of wild code and aggressively-expansive new species. They protect new civilizations, then judge them to decide if they are bringing new knowledge into their ranks. Those that fail to be voted in are left to be destroyed by automated systems—the Shrivers—relieving the First of direct responsibility for genocide. “It may be a popularity contest.” Only one in twenty civilizations now survive the vote. Eddie warns them of the accelerated timetable, with Shrivers on the way to scour the universe clean of humanity in two years, but tells them he has useful information on how they can defend themselves. A Shriver advance probe flies by Earth and picks up enough information from the Internet to locate all human colony planets, and Paradise. First general Council election open to all humanity. Results give opposition People First reps one-third of the votes in Council. Justin retains largest vote, Kuklov second. Dylan is contacted by Shrivers taking the form of a Djinn, and offered the reward of upload and everlasting control of his tribe and sim-Earth in return for betraying humanity and allowing himself to be copied for use by the invasion force. This is because the original rules governing Shriver actions, laid down by the First to keep them from destroying the civilizations deemed valuable for taking with them into the Omega Point, require the Shrivers to access a source of hate from species members, which Dylan has plenty of. Having washed their hands of the immorality of genocide by assigning it to an “independent” force, the First cling to the notion that any civilization with such internal discord will become dangerous as it grows more powerful. Back on Earth, NASA, Russian and Chinese space programs cooperate to set up defenses, and an Earth fleet is assembled from remnants of the old space programs and new vessels cranked out by replicator and driven by AIs. Extra backups and defenses of substrate programs are put in place. Kat begins to study the past lives of other First-uploaded species under the tutelage of “Aurora,” a First resident who has taken an interest in humanity and is trying to save them. Aurora presents a virtual world based on ideas from Kat’s childhood, and she lives in a magic castle. Kat goes through the lives of several different First residents: Aurora herself, and avian male, an AI Library, the First of First (who began the uploaded First civilization), and a social insect who gene-modified herself and her people into space. A Shriver fleet attacks an India-linked colony world and destroys it. Substrate programs suffer attrition as they are attacked in the substrate, and many replicators stop working. People starve or adapt earth plants on those colony worlds where they can survive. Transport is partially cut off. Steve and Justin prepare a black hole weapon to use against the Shriver fleet. They use it first to defend the ice planet civilization, and succeed in wiping out the Shriver force, realizing they may be compromising the weapon’s effectiveness when they need to defend Earth. This proves true, as Earth is approached by a warier and more dispersed Shriver fleet, and the black holes miss some of them. The Earth fleet hides behind Jupiter, then attacks the Shrivers, but four escape and head on to Earth. The Shriver ships reach Earth, where defenses are quickly overwhelmed, and the Earth is razed. New Earth is invaded, and Dylan copies seek out Justin and Samantha. Substrate functions have failed. Justin, Samantha, and their children flee through the forest above the town but are chased by Dylan-copies and aerial war drones. Justin and Samantha are cut down by the guns of Dylan-copies and wounded, but urge the children to keep running. Eddie the alien AI helps the children escape, because his substrate abilities are intact. In a final confrontation, Dylan looms over Justin and Samantha, and gloats that he has finally won. Justin and Samantha are killed. Meanwhile, Eddie the alien AI has rescued Kat and Danny. Kat goes before the Tribunal of the First to plead humanity’s case for survival. Most of the First have barely noticed since few concern themselves with real-universe affairs. The Tribunal agrees to a probationary period for humanity, and upload in the future if properly prepared. The backup copies of humans held in substrate memory have been corrupted, Justin, Samantha, and Steve are dead. Most of the Earth population survives on evacuation planets. But Steve has prepared, and backups of New Earth are automatically thawed. The copies of Steve and Justin go to work restoring replicators and gateways to save colony worlds, and restore the Earth’s crust and people. Humanity has been saved and approved for eventual upload to the substrate, at some unknown date in the future. Kat will struggle against her brother and one of Steve’s children to control the process, which they want to subvert. Humanity has to prove itself in the cutthroat arena of First politics…. END
In Kinnison's expansive but muddled science fiction novel -- the third installment in his Substrate Wars series -- the leaders of New Earth discover a threat known as Shrivers, set up by the powerful technology they’ve used to help rapidly advance humanity. Despite this interesting premise, the book features underdeveloped characters and stilted dialogue. And despite the threat of annihilation, the plot never takes on much urgency as it moves toward a somewhat predictable conclusion.
Date Submitted: June 01, 2016