Steven "Jumper" Gould's new novel 7TH SIGMA: genre-busting science fiction/western kicks ass

Steven Gould's latest novel 7th Sigma is his best since Jumper, and while it shares Jumper's excellent pace and likable characters, it is otherwise as totally unlike Jumper as it could be, except in the field of overall awesomeness, which it has in spades.

In 7th Sigma, the American southwest has experienced a unique apocalypse: out of nowhere, artificial lifeforms called "bugs" have appeared. These tiny robotic flying insects home in on any source of metal or EMF and devour them, budding off more bugs using the digested metals. Their geometric reproduction quickly lays waste to the southwest and all who live there -- especially people with metal pins in their joints, or pacemakers -- since the bugs are capable of tunneling through solid rock or flesh to get at the metal within. Now the southwest is a frontier again, where small villages eke out a life alongside fields and arroyos that glitter with the photovoltaic wings of the mysterious bugs. Only the bugs' aversion to water has stopped them from devouring the whole planet: as soon as they reach the edge of the desert and the more humid, moist territories, they begin to die off.

This sets the stage for a wonderful genre mashup: a science fiction/western, set in the new frontier, inhabited by ranchers, farmers, banditos, native Americans, and the law. But though this frontier is populated by the familiar set-dressing of the western -- horses and corrals, cowboy hats and adobe -- it is also full of high-tech polymers and ceramics imported from beyond the border. There is no Internet, but a network of Qwest heliographics will transmit your urgent messages to the border, where they'll be rekeyed into an email and fired off to their recipients. There are no six-guns, but there are disposable cardboard rifles that fire gravel or ceramics, and, of course, ceramic crossbows with marvelous optics.

Enter the characters: Kim is a runaway who escaped to the frontier when his abusive father was airlifted out (by a skyhook attached to a nonmetallic balloon, of course) because his metal pacemaker would have doomed him. Kim was supposed to follow his father, but instead, he's escaped to the streets of New Santa Fe, where he lives by his wits. And then he meets Ruth, an Aikido sensei who is off to found a new dojo deep in the territory, and the two adopt one another.

Kim and Ruth go through the arduous task of establishing the dojo in the rough frontier, overcoming natural and human adversity, and Kim's training brings him both calm and physical mastery. So when events conspire to put Kim in the position of saving a neighbor from bandits, he comes into contact with one of the Rangers who has responsibility for the territory, a Ranger who recognizes him as a runaway. But instead of sending him back to his abusive father, the lawman inducts Kim as an undercover agent, and there begins the adventure in earnest. As Kim gets older and more proficient, he becomes one of the frontier's greatest undercover cops, and gets closer and closer to unraveling the mystery of the bugs.

This is sheer adventure, and it's full of engaging, nerdily detailed depictions of the minutiae of Aikido, spycraft, artificial life theory, frontier economics, religious zealotry, Zen meditation, as well as beautiful and evocative descriptions of the southwestern landscape. It's clearly the first volume of a longer series, and it has the true pulp adventure serial spirit, the compulsively consumable zing that'll have you turning pages long past your bedtime.

Though the book has a young adult protagonist, it's not being marketed as YA, probably because it has the occasional F-bomb. But this is the kind of book that will engage adults and kids, provided you don't subscribe to the weird philosophy that says kids who read the F-word are permanently corrupted.

7th Sigma


  1. Waaay too much exposition – a bit like one of those movie trailers that condense the entire film in 2 minutes.

    1. That’s why I went from “Steven Gould’s latest novel”, to the Amazon link!

  2. Hi everyone!
    Doesn’t this sound a little bit like Kim, from Rudyard Kipling?
    You know, a streetwise orphan named Kim meeting some monk-like figure and embarking on a quest of enlightenment/fun together. Them developing true affection for each other, but at the same time Kim becoming an undercover agent for the powers-that-be.
    Don’t get me wrong, Kim is one of my all time favourite books, and a well done mushup between it and a sci-fi western sounds cool, the similarities just struck me when I read the synopsis.

  3. Where have I read about these metal eating bugs before? Maybe a serialized chapter or something? In any case, once I get through my current queue, this one is up. Also, never read Jumper so WOOHOO, two new in the queue!

  4. If these bugs are harmed by moisture, how can they tunnel through human flesh? Bit of a logic problem there…

  5. Hmm, this sounds amazingly similar to the Novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Orphan boy named Kim surviving on his wits in a frontier only to be taken in to work for the secret service.

    I mean, except for the bugs of course.

  6. Wait… the bugs that are simply defeated by water, but will burrow through distinctly watery human flesh to get more metal?

    Dammit, I would have read this book if you hadn’t summarized it with a giant stupid plot hole.

    1. You could give it the benefit of the doubt before assuming it’s a plot hole. It could be that the bugs don’t have trouble with water or watery-substances short term, but long term humid conditions don’t mesh well with their makeup.. Or, hell, it could be that they’re specifically programmed to die off if the average daily humidity gets too high by whatever force created them (presumably living in a humid climate).

      I loved Jumper and while none of Gould’s other novels quite lived up to that, they’ve always been enjoyable.

  7. Well, i havent read it, but the bugs dont have to be killed right away by water, maybe they just rust up over a few hours. So the ones that kill people would still themselves die a few hours later.

  8. Jumper is not his best book. You should check out Wildside, Green War, Helm, or Blind Waves.

  9. Steven Gould has given a write-up of the background of this book over on John Scalzi’s blog, which addresses some of the concerns here:


    Yes this is explicitly a retelling of ‘Kim’, much like Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” is a retelling of “The Jungle Book”.

    The bugs are not damaged/killed by water or humidity: “They avoid water. Doesn’t destroy them, but they avoid it.”

  10. …provided you don’t subscribe to the weird philosophy that says kids who read the F-word are permanently corrupted.

    That shit’s way too bankrupt to be considered philosophy; it’s mere doctrine.

  11. Um… doesn’t this sound just like the whole “replicator” concept from Stargate SG1?

    1. Oh my god… you’re right!


      I just discovered something astounding.

      You know how in the later seasons of Stargate SG1, they started travelling on ships?

      Doesn’t that sound just like that whole Star Trek series they had in the 60s?

      Congratulations, you’ve stumbled upon the great secret of SF:
      it’s not about creating the most innovative new ideas nobody’s ever seen before, although if you can manage that, great, (Stargate didn’t come up with the idea of self-replicating machines that destroy civilizations, btw). It’s about telling great stories with whatever SF ideas are good enough building blocks, even if they’ve been used before.

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