Neverness (1988) by David Zindell

Don't miss out on the other works in the series:
The Broken God (1993) Book Review
The Wild (1995) Book Review
War in Heaven (1998) Book Review
Available works by David Zindell


For thee millennia the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame (the Order) has been exploring the great mysteries of the Universe from its powerbase in the city of Neverness on the planet Icefall, only one civilised world out of the 4,000 in the galaxy. There is no greater mystery than the secret of life, and David Zindell’s epic space opera launches into an investigation of what it means to be human by envisioning a galaxy teeming with different lifeforms, from engineered primitivist tribes to planet-size machine intelligences.

The story follows the young pilot, Mallory Ringess as he joins the Order’s quest to solve the mystery of the Elder Eddas, ancient knowledge passed down by the extinct civilisation known as the Ieldras and said to contain the secrets of life and the blueprint for mankind to achieve godhood. The Order’s quest is tied into an extinction threat taking place in the remote galactic region of the Vild where a self-replicating human society is advancing at an exponential rate by blowing up and consuming whole stars. Mallory’s uncle, also a pilot and recently returned from a mission, has picked up a signal from the Ieldras, which suggests that not only is the Elder Eddas encoded in the oldest DNA of man, but also that by decoding it the galaxy can be saved.

Neverness is essentially a meditation on technology’s capacity for remodelling our understanding of what it means to be human. Upon leaning that the Elder Eddas is encoded in ancient human DNA, Mallory comes up with a plan to steal tissue samples from the Alaloi tribes which live as hunters in a remote region of Icefall. The Alaloi stem back to humanity’s emigration from Old Earth known as the Waves of Swarming, and even if they themselves have forgotten their origin, it is known to Mallory that they are in fact the bioengineered outcome of a group of people who spliced themselves with Neanderthal DNA in order to return to a more natural state of life. As Mallory has his body modified in order to be able to pass as an Alaloi, he himself leaves behind his posthuman reality, an eye-opening experience in the most basic sense as he has never seen meat butchered, never seen an old man.

Mallory’s quest doesn’t end with the Alaloi tribe, in fact it fails to generate the promised insights, and as a pilot of the Order he must continue the mission alone in his spaceship. On the watery planet of Agathange, Mallory encounters an aquatic species the origin of which also dates back to the Waves of Swarming. Here the initial group of Terran ecologists, determined to save sea mammals, have ended up bioengineering a whole new species, a hybridisation of machine, human and sea mammals, that has since evolved into a hive consciousness, spanning the whole planet. Mallory is allowed to experience their way of life, setting in motion a meditation on the origin of the programs that run our lives: whether we are pre-programmed or have free will, whether there is a program deity, and if so, has that deity been programmed.

The concept of a life progenitor, the existence of a God, is no more present perhaps than in Mallory’s encounter with the Solid State Entity, a nebula of moon-sized machine intelligences so complex that it defies any attempt to understand it, a system capable of manipulating spacetime and creating anything at will. Here creation is presented as a mathematical game, a technological black box that can create ex nihilo. The existence of an entity immensely more advanced than humans feeds the existential dread that runs through much of the book, asking the question whether mankind is nothing but a waystation on life’s relentless march towards ever more complexity. The idea that humanity is at risk of obsolescence in the face of advancing technology informs much of the best sf since 1980, whether it is Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997), M John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012), or Peter Watts’ still ongoing Blindsight series (2006-2014?). No one comes close to the philosophical depth with which Zindell tackles the issue of the human condition though.

”I did not know. I could not know. I had seen less than a millionth part of her, and She had probably needed only the tiniest portion of that part to speak with me mind to mind. I was like a grain of sand trying to understand an ocean from the eddies and currents sweeping it along: I was like a flower trying to deduce space travel from the faint tickle of starlight upon its delicate petals. To this day I search for words describing my impression of the Entity’s power, but there are no words.”