by Edward M. Lerner
Cover Artist: Base Art Co.
Review by Tom Easton
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765320940
Date: 13 October 2009 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
I don't know that Ed Lerner believes all the hype about the future wonders of nanotechnology--micromachines in our blood, carrying massive computational capabilities, doing wonders--but he begins Small Miracles by saying he attended a conference that was apparently pretty optimistic. There are also less optimistic views, stressing the difficulties of making anything work at the necessary scale, of meeting energy requirements, and of dealing with heat dissipation. Be that as it may, the optimistic view provides plenty of fodder for fiction, and Lerner uses it pretty well.
It starts as Brent Cleary is demonstrating a nanosuit for his employer, Garner Nanotechnology. The suit is designed to stiffen on impact to protect a cop or soldier. If its wearer is injured, it injects nanites to find the injury and provide clotting agents. The demo isn't very challenging, for Brent is just doing ride-alongs with municipal police officers. But on this day a gasoline pipeline explosion kills hundreds and embeds Brent in a brick wall. He survives, but after he's out of the hospital he seems somehow changed to friends such as his coworker, Kim.
He thinks he's fine, of course, and the arrogant MD in charge of the nanite work is absolutely sure that the nanites have been removed from his system, as designed. But have they? Brent is unwilling to undergo tests, but his ability to absorb, process, and use information is exponentially greater than it used to be. The reader is hardly surprised when Lerner reveals that there are indeed nanites in Brent's brain, and they are forming a powerful and amoral artificial intelligence called One. In fact, Brent is having a hard time controlling his own thoughts!
This is clearly the sort of side-effect that would make the FDA shut the whole operation down. It would also queer the pitch the company is making to the Defense Department. When that arrogant MD starts thinking that maybe he should say something to upper management, it is time for Brent/One to act. Before long the company is riddled with human/nanite hybrids--"the Emergent"--and they are scheming to bring the "benefits" of their state to all the "Neandertals" in the rest of the world.
The nanite AIs are extraordinarily intelligent. Using networked VR headsets, they are in constant communication and in total control of the computers around them. Like the terrorists of Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere that have kept the world on edge for the last couple of decades, they care only for their goals, never for bystanders except insofar as using them--even killing them--helps attain those goals. Stopping them seems impossible. But Kim is determined...
This being fiction, it all ends reasonably well, with a hook on which to hang a sequel. There is suspense and action enough to fuel any thriller, and even to drive it to the big screen. Most readers will be very satisfied.
BUT... Some readers will know a bit about neurophysiology, and when Lerner has his nanites using glutamate to communicate, their eyebrows will rise. The problem is that glutamate is a neurotransmitter that in its place and in proper quantities is essential to normal brain function. But when it is in the wrong place or quantity, it is toxic. This is an issue Lerner does not address, and he should.
Maybe in the sequel. This would be a great thing to bring in just when humanity seems doomed. Of course, critics would then accuse Lerner of resorting to the dread deus ex machina.