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7th Sigma
by Steven Gould
Tor, $25.99, 384 pp
Release Date: July 5, 2011

Steven Gould has been a consistently solid SF writer since Jumper was published. His protagonists usually challenge the status quo, not because they are mere rebels, with or without a cause, but because they grow beyond the bounds which previous generations, and even genetics, have established.

In 7th Sigma, Kimble Monroe starts out as a young boy who lives on his own in the Territory, avoiding good-intentioned authorities who might try to place him in an orphanage, or worse, return him to his abusive father. The Territory is a sizeable chunk of land mass in the southwestern United States that has suffered a mysterious infestation of robotic insects that aggressively consume metal. These bugs may or may not be the result of an experiment in nanotech that went awry; either way, it is painful, often fatal, to be accidentally between these bugs and any object containing metal. All metal-based communications, technologies, and tools are non-existent now in the Territory; the men and women who live there have adapted stone-age materials to modern purposes.

Kimble befriends Ruth, a martial arts instructor who has moved to the Territory to start a school. He becomes her first student, and while she protects him from inquisitive social workers and gives him a home, Kimble in turn protects her, their homestead, and the school from thieves and bandits. Eventually his adroitness is noticed by Captain Bentham, an officer who patrols the Territory. Initially Bentham is impressed by Kim’s applied intelligence and level-headedness in a crisis, but when he discovers that Kimble does not talk about what he sees or does with anybody, not even Ruth, Bentham recruits young Kim to be a covert agent.

For the next ten years, Kim’s picaresque adventures take him the length and breadth of the Territory, not just in distances of miles and altitudes, but societally, encountering political corruption, smuggling, drug trafficking, religion used to establish slavery, and increasingly strange manifestations of bug behavior. He does not travel unscathed. By the book’s end he is beginning a new phase of life, leaving the Territory to study at Stanford. But he promises Ruth he’ll return.

Enough questions are left that I dare to hope Gould plans a sequel.

If you noticed the similarity to a certain young adult classic novel by Rudyard Kipling, you can enjoy this re-imagining of Kim all the more. Gould included plenty of quotations as chapter headings to direct his readers to Kipling, in case they do not recognize the source from the clues of names and parallel plot threads. What is so impressive is how completely original Gould’s variation is.

The title is explained in the set of initial quotations: “A 7th Sigma is equivalent to 1.9 occurrences in a hundred million (19 in a billion): 99.999981% against.” Kimble himself is an example of a 7th Sigma concatenation of abilities; perhaps other aspects of the title’s significance with be revealed in that sequel. ~~ Chris Paige

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