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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Nemo's World: The Substrate Wars 2 by Jeb Kinnison

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Nemo's World:

The Substrate Wars 2


Jeb Kinnison


(February 2015, tpb, 281 pp.)


Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Nemo's World owes much to the libertarian philosophy put forth in several of Robert A. Heinlein's novels from the 1950s and early 1960s. There are many colors and shades of modern Libertarianism, but one of the core tenets is an aversion to a government controlling the individual. How, and to what degree a government should protect, oversee, or control it citizens (for their own good), are the primary points of disagreement among libertarian ideologies, for as history shows us far too often a government's efforts to “protect” its citizenry soon becomes—and masks—the true reason for restricting and controlling it: pure Power.

Nemo's World continues the story begun in Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1 (2014) and the fight waged by a techno-rebel group known as the Grey Tribe against a highly repressive government whose policies are enforced by Homeland Security. Homeland Security has taken drastic security measures in order to “protect” the American people following a terrorist cobalt bomb attack in Manhattan ten years earlier. Many feel that the line between “protection” and “repression” has been crossed, however, thus the birth of the Grey Tribe.

During the time of the security clampdown a California college professor and his grad students have been at work on ALife (Artificial Life) simulations. Tasked with transporting their advanced software to a new quantum computer in another lab, one of the students discovers an anomaly in the computer's memory and while attempting to explain it uncovers a whole new quantum theory that permits instant gateways to any desired location—including other worlds.

One of the genius grad students further refines and enhances the quantum computer code to a level of sophistication whereby pinpoint accuracy in opening doorways makes the discovery a potentially powerful tool in the Grey Tribe's fight against not only the American government, but other more totalitarian governments worldwide, for one of the group has revealed himself to be involved with the rebel Grey Tribe. At the same time as this clandestine research is progressing, one of the group, angered that his co-worker girlfriend has formed a relationship with the leader of the group, steals the original elementary quantum code and for revenge takes it to the government. He makes the government an offer: if given unlimited resources and a private lab, he will provide the government the secret to the gateways, thus giving them the ultimate power to control the people.

Our grad students are several steps ahead of the traitor with the advancements in the computer code, which provides more flexibility in the use of the gateways (and its ability to transport not only objects but people anywhere), but they know it is only a matter of time before the traitor (and the government) will catch up. When they do, the government will have the ability to track down and destroy the rebels before they can utilize the gateways to the benefit of the worldwide population. The rebels have already mapped many habitable worlds suitable for human expansion and colonization. Their base of operations is now on New Earth, in fact, but this is only the beginning….

It is within this high-tension atmosphere that Nemo's World takes place. There is still much to do on Earth, and the growing band of rebels must gateway home regularly in order to continue the complex logistics required to transport via gateway those on Earth willing to begin life on a new world of their choosing, one they feel best suits them and where they can form the type of government they desire. And all the while remaining one step ahead of the American and Chinese governments which will do anything to stop them in their quest to free the peoples over which they hold ultimate power. Not an easy task, even with the help from individual members of the underground on Earth, who provide information and material aid when and where they can.

All of the moving parts in place, Nemo's World moves at a brisk pace. It's a life and death cat and mouse game as the traitor, with all of the government's resources at his disposal, having evolved the quantum computer code to a level of capability near that of the rebels, is able to predict where the rebels will next open a gateway for supplies and material. Caught off guard with disastrous results once, the rebels now know how close their nemesis has come to dismantling their entire plan and so work even more determinedly to accelerate their plans before it becomes too late. They go public to the governments of Earth and issue an ultimatum (which I shan't disclose here), and the high stakes poker game now has both sides going all in. Will the governments call the rebels' bluff (if it is indeed a bluff)? Will they try to buy time with empty talk while their bought and paid for traitor promises results he may not be able to give? Violence on both sides increases, lives are regrettably lost on both sides, and it is a race to the finish with the outcome uncertain. There are characters with whom we have come to align ourselves, with whom we have come to know and sympathize, and a character whose petty personal motives we have come to despise—along with the surveillance-state government to which he has sold himself.

Running through all of the machinations and maneuverings, personal stories of love and loss, sacrifice and heroism—and of course treachery—is the ages-old story of a band of rebels fighting for freedom against almost insurmountable odds. Kinnison handles all of this with aplomb and a sure hand, making for an engaging, page-turning read.

While the story does not end with Nemo's World (the concluding volume is forthcoming), it does progress to the point where—with danger still in the offing—gateways to countless other human-friendly, uninhabited worlds are opened and mass migrations are in progress. And this is where the over-arching libertarian thread, the very theme of the novel is moved front and center, forcing the reader to think about the solutions the author is giving, and how they would in reality work...or not, for there is no perfect form of government given human nature as we know it.

In the real world—at least to this point in time—there are no deus ex machinas in the form of quantum computers providing gateways to other worlds where each world has the form of government its people freely choose. You choose to live in a state-controlled society of whatever degree? Fine, we can give you a whole world. You choose to live in a society with the least possible governmental rules and regulations? Fine, we can give you an entire world. If you choose to live in a society with a form of government anywhere in between, or no government at all, we can give it to you. Through the gateway technology we can import anything you need to help set up your new worlds until you are able to provide for, establish stable infrastructures, and maintain any society you wish. We can arrange the gateways for travel back and forth, it's not a one-way arrangement. But—should any group or world try to impose its form of government on another, remember we control the quantum gate technology and can isolate you from the rest of the human race throughout the inhabited worlds. This is where Nemo's World leaves us. With hope, but also with a lot to think about and a lot of unanswered questions in regard to the specific flavor of libertarianism the author asks us to consider.

One major incongruency hit me near the end of the book. If the author's proffered iteration of libertarianism is to be consistent, how can he then place the ultimate power of the gateway technology in the hands of one small group of people—regardless of their well-meaning intentions and high ethical standards—when the premise of the entire story is based on freedom and self-determination? Power in the hands of the few is what has led to their rebellion in the first place, a sacred trust and power misused. Wisely, the author deals with his own inconsistency here, but not as forcefully as this reader would have liked. I have a feeling the consequences of this decision—and a host of others as his Grand Design for Freedom for All will have many rough spots to be smoothed out—will be addressed in the concluding volume. There is still a lot of story left here, problems to be solved, and philosophical questions to be answered.

Nemo's World is the thoughtful reader's action thriller and I recommend it enthusiastically.

Born in Kansas City, Jeb Kinnison grew up in the Midwest and studied computer science at MIT where he was a junior member of the Scheme Team, then worked on supercomputers at BBN before turning to asset management and writing. For those wishing to learn more about the politics and science of the Substrate series visit SubstrateWars.com.

♣  ♣  ♣ 

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.