Linda Nagata published her first book, The Bohr Maker, in 1995, and she is best known for her “nanopunk” novels – a genre I didn’t know existed, or at least, a moniker I wasn’t familiar with. Nanopunk is basically a subgenre of transhumanist science fiction, set in the far-future with lots of nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.
I had been eyeing her work for some time, nearly buying Edges from 2019, the first in the Inverted Frontier series. Not sure what held me back, but when I saw she’d published this in 2020, I decided to give it a go.
Not that this is nanopunk: Pacific Storm is a near-future thriller set in Hawaii – Nagata has been living there herself since she was 10.
The book is set at least 20 years from now, possibly even a few decades later. The United States has undergone major political change as its current political parties don’t exist anymore, and it has huge debts so China, so much the US government is even willing to lease control of Hawaii to the Chinese in exchange for debt relief.
Set against the backdrop of an oncoming major hurricane, Ava Arnett, a Honolulu cop, gets sucked into a terrorism plot, prompting her to question the trustworthiness of the government AI she relies on to predict human behavior. Arnett – like Hawaii itself – is still haunted by the consequences of a devastating hurricane that hit the island nine years ago.
Pacific Storm‘s blend of politics, AI, conspiracy, extreme weather, hobbyist gene-editing and surveillance state smart glasses offers much to like. Nagata publishes her books on her own imprint – Mythic Island Press – and I think Pacific Storm could have very well become a bestseller if a major publisher would’ve thrown some serious marketing funds at it. Having said that, can I also recommend it?
It will not surprise you that the answer is yes and no. Depends on what kind of reader you are. If you like the blurb of the novel, and if you enjoy reading that has more in common with Mission Impossible than with Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy, by all means, go for it.
I don’t want to accuse Nagata of having written a superficial popcorn book. She did try to infuse the book with a certain depth: the political climate of the novel is a critique of where things stand right now in the USA, and the protagonist has a backstory that involves personal climate trauma. On top of that, the basic mystery of the novel is epistemic: can Ava trust all the data her AI smart glasses constantly feed her? How far up the chain of command does the corruption reach? Who can she trust, and who is part of the terrorist plot?
Sadly, all of these things have just one layer to them: it is all straightforward and transparent conceptually, even if the plot of the book retains part of this epistemic uncertainty until the end.
It doesn’t help either that Nagata’s narrator at times has a need to explain the obvious. Indulge me for a bit of close reading. Consider this short fragment, in which Ava tries to help a character that has fallen during the storm, against her superior’s orders.
Easy to see she’d had a bad fall trying to climb the bank. Acting on instinct, Ava moved in to help. It’s what she’d always done. It’s why she’d gone out into the storm in defiance of orders – because when people needed help, you helped them.
That entire last sentence is superfluous. Nitpicking, yes, but that kind of writing isn’t something I can truly be enthusiastic about.
On top of the lack of layered depth, halfway the novel it dawned on me that Pacific Storm would just run its course in a straight line, and that we’d follow the protagonist, in sync with the increasing winds, to some final confrontation with an antagonist to save Pearl Harbor from some serious explosion. It is no spoiler to say that Nagata follows that course exactly. As the first half of the book is quite strong, it pains me to say Pacific Storm became a bit boring, even if Nagata does try to take the scenic route, and the novel is never predictable on a micro level.
As a beach read Pacific Storm works just fine, which is fitting for a book that takes place in Waikīkī. The plot is overall engaging, and plausible too, without obvious holes – even though a few things border incredulity. The pacing is good and Nagata has some cool ideas. As a result, its 262 pages fly by as a breeze. Just do not expect brooding, beautiful or intricate literature. I guess that was glaringly obvious just looking at the cover.
I have to add one more thing: this didn’t discourage me from reading Edges or one of Nagata’s other far future novels. Judging by the positives of Pacific Storm, I’m pretty sure she can do better.