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Signal To Noise
Eric S. Nylund
Avon EOS Books, 371 pages

Signal To Noise
Eric S. Nylund
Eric S. Nylund was born in 1964 in Los Angles. His academic background includes a B.S. in chemistry and an M.S. in Chemical Physics. Like many writers, he began after deciding that he could tell a story as well as those whose novels appear in the stores. While attending the Clarion West Writers Workshop he met his fiancée, Syne Mitchell.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

With his fourth novel, Signal to Noise, Eric S. Nylund adds his name to a list of writers -- Sheri S. Tepper and Nancy Kress are two good examples -- who turn to science fiction after first writing fantasy novels. The success of Tepper and Kress suggests that this is not a bad strategy for an aspiring SF writer. Science fiction requires a lot of skills for a first-time novelist. There are the same requirements for plot, character, and style as any other literary form. It is in the setting that the "science" component of science fiction most often makes its presence felt, with the requirement that the science be either plausible enough to be believed, or artfully explained away. Finally, a good SF novel needs an inventiveness of thought; the science fiction reader expects to occasionally stop and think "Wow! That's a cool idea." It's a lot to ask of any beginning writer.

Perhaps it is due to skills acquired in the author's previous work that Signal to Noise meets the requirements of a good science fiction novel. Jack Potter, the main character, is a researcher in the Academy of Pure and Applied Sciences. He works with people who are all wired into a virtual reality network, the present day office cubicle is replaced with "bubbles" that enclose each person, allowing them to completely control their perceived environment. Jack's research is a mathematical study of noise; he believes that the human mind will perceive a patterned signal even when none exists. His troubles begin when he finds an actual message hidden in old astronomical data, a signal of extraterrestrial origin.

Signal to Noise is set in the near future after a worldwide catastrophe. Shifting tectonic plates have literally shaken loose old power structures, allowing multi-national corporations to completely dominate the world. In the United States, the Forty-Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of corporations to do anything they please.

Jack Potter is one of few people able to work their way up from the bottom in this world. When communications with an alien give him access to new technology that will make him and his friends rich, he cannot say no. This action propels him into a world of corporate and national intrigue, with battles fought over information and money in real and virtual worlds. The plot is a classic case of learning who is lying, who is telling the truth, and who can be trusted. Jack, due to his mistakes in dealing with the aliens, is at the center of it all. The lessons he learns, the decisions he makes, and the consequences for all involved are the heart of the story in Signal to Noise.

Signal to Noise then, is essentially a one character novel. This allows a consistency of viewpoint, and the reader gains a good understanding of Jack Potter, who is, after all, the central character. The problem is that there are several other characters about whom it would have been nice to know more. In particular, Jack's partners, Isabel the archaeologist turned ruthless corporate executive, and Zero, the gene-witch, could have been fleshed out in more detail. The same goes for Panda, the Chinese agent, and her counterpart Reno, who might be working for the US, the corporations, or possibly the Chinese. These characters are interesting, but they aren't developed much beyond the stereotypical qualities needed for the thriller plot-line.

Still, that should not distract from the fact that Signal to Noise is a good read, well-written with a wealth of inventive details. Jack Potter is a complex character with conflicting motivations. He is not a bad guy, he just gets involved in situations he doesn't understand. In the end, he has the honesty to face up to his mistakes and do what he can to make up for them.

The dust-jacket on Signal to Noise and accompanying hype loudly proclaim Signal to Noise as the next big thing, a "hyperpunk" novel. The truth is that this is a novel thoroughly steeped in the science fiction tradition. The discerning reader will recognize bits of John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline, Frederik Pohl's The Space Merchants and The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt in the setting and ideas presented in the story. The character of Jack Potter invites comparisons with Gulliver Foyle, the common man with the ability to destroy the world in The Stars My Destination, and Mr. Harris, the businessman who sells the Brooklyn Bridge in Norman Spinrad's classic short story, A Thing of Beauty. There is no need to invent a new category of fiction to describe Signal to Noise. It is enough to recognize it for what it is: a science fiction novel, and a good one at that.

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

Greg L. Johnson lives in Minneapolis, and is becoming increasingly aware of living in a world invented by science fiction writers.

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