The Quantum Connection by Travis S Taylor
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
In Warp Speed Doc Travis introduced us to Neil Anson Clemons, a semi-autobiographical character who invented a faster-than-light spacedrive and in the process both ignited and won a nasty war in which his stardrive was used as a weapon. However, the powers that be decided that the truth was too dangerous for widespread distribution, and that the public would be told that the devastation was the result of a freak meteor storm. As I'm reading that, I think the government must not think very much of the American public, to think everybody's going to fall for it, or else they figure that if any bright little geeks figure out the pattern of strikes clearly indicate the work of intelligence, they can either be terrorized into silence or have their credibility destroyed. In any case, it's not a course of action that's going to bolster long-term trust in the Federal government, and I'm thinking this is a situation I want to see more of, to see how it shakes out.
However, when this novel begins, we have a protagonist who's too shell-shocked by his personal losses to be worried about whether the government's account of events adds up. Steve Montana was away at school, working on a computer science degree, when Denver vanished and along with it everybody he ever knew. After that he kind of fell apart emotionally, and ended up dropping out of school and working as a tech at a video game repair shop to keep eating and sleeping indoors.
And then one day a guy comes in with an ancient console game set and some cartridges. Steve gets it working again and the man is suitably impressed. He'd like to hire Steve for a very special job examining a mysterious device.
Suddenly Steve has a good job again, with insurance good enough to allow him to get some treatment for the pall of depression that's descended over his life. But the work involves sensitive information, some of which requires a security clearance. His boss is sure everything will go through and gives him a temporary clearance.
And then, just as Steve's making some real breakthroughs on this thing, the bad news comes in. Because everybody who knew him personally before a few years ago is dead, they can't trust that he really is the person his documentation says he is, and not a spy creating a paper person. So they're taking away everything he's done, order him to forget h ever saw it, and warn that if he ever says anything about it or works on anything similar, he can be put away for life.
Still reeling from this blow, he drives home to get one final kick in the teeth. Not only are government agents ransacking his apartment, but they've also shot his dog for daring to defend his human's home against intruders. Steve goes over the edge, telling the agents off and taking his dog's body on a cross-country trek back home to Denver to bury. He has to sneak past some roadblocks, and he discovers the devastation is so absolute he can't locate his family home, but when he gets close enough, he goes ahead and lays his dog to rest.
And then things start going really weird. Something grabs him, and the next thing he knows, he's in a barren room with a middle-aged man and a cute young woman. Even as he's struggling to make sense of his situation, the man is cut apart by invisible forces, his dismembered body whisked away at the command of creatures that look very much like the typical Gray aliens -- and either Steve or the unknown woman's next.
Steve pulls himself together, and in a sequence of quick-thinking moves frees himself and the young woman, Tatiana (her full name is malformed, which grates because it's really not that hard to look up the proper formation of Russian patronymics and surnames, but it doesn't destroy my suspension of disbelief so badly I have to quit reading). In the process he captures an alien computer and kills the alien crew. He then discovers that they are aboard an alien vessel in orbit around Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Now that they're in control of the alien spacecraft (and of themselves, now that the computer's been ordered to remove the alien spy implants that were causing their uncontrollable emotions and mood shifts), they decide to go back home and warn humanity that Earth is being watched by aliens who have no concept of the individual and view murder of a test subject as of no more significance than taking a blood sample.
But who can they approach and not be laughed off, or worse, locked up as crazy? Steve recalls Dr. Clemons, whom he met briefly while he was still working on the secret project to reverse-engineer the alien computer. So he heads off to the Moon, where Dr. Clemons and his family have a defense base.
However, there's one big problem -- in the process of getting to know one another, Steve and Tatiana transformed their plain and unremarkable bodies into ideal ones. So nobody recognized Steve as the same person as the overweight, out of shape nerd they met some months earlier.
The result is an ugly fight that nearly kills several people. It's only when Steve uses the nanotech powers of his alien computer to save the life of one of his erstwhile attackers do they really believe he's one of the good guys.
Once they've established bona fides, they team up to find out just who or what these Grays are. When they come to the Grays' homeworld, they discover that the ascetic, eusocial Grays are in fact only one of two galactic great powers, and have been at war with the epicurean, hedonistic Lumpeyans (who seem to be the source for both the ancient Greek pantheon and out popular image of the Devil) for untold eons.
Here's where the story gets really wild, to the point I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with its position as sequel to Warp Speed. That novel was straight-up drama in the hard-sf tradition, but this one is starting to read more and more like a farce on space opera. Not that I have anything against the latter genre, but the shift in tone makes me stumble a little as a reader.
The story does end happily -- this is a Baen book, after all -- and I'm happy to say that it simultaneously gives me a satisfying feeling of completion and leaves the door open for additional stories set in the same universe. I'd love to read more about the characters, but if the author has decided to move on to other fictional worlds, I can live with that decision.
Review posted June 4, 2012.
Buy The Quantum Connection (Warp Speed #2) from Amazon.com