Linda Nagata
The Bohr Maker (1995)
Reviewed: 1999-03-20

Welcome to an unpleasantly plausible version of the nanotech future. They are called Makers. Nanotech devices of incredible capabilities. The only limit is the law. On Earth there are many independent states, but all of them bow to the Commonwealth, if not officially then in practice. The raison d'être of the Commonwealth is to limit the development of technology. Nanotech is fine, as long as it is licensed, regulated, limited. Progress, yes, but without change that could overwhelm the fossilized ways of the world. The human form must not be altered, no smart artificial intelligence is allowed. Enforcement is absolute, swift, and often lethal. Few are the legal bounds to the powers of the Commonwealth police.

The world is a haunted place, but there is nothing metaphysical about these ghosts. People can make a copy of their mind that can roam the networked world as an autonomous agent and later return to the main person to have its memories reintegrated. Ghosts can also be downloaded into clone bodies elsewhere in the solar system or be entertained in the atrium of other people's minds.

Nikko is a citizen of the Summer House, a corporation headquartered on a living space habitat, whose scientists always work at the brink of the illegal and sometimes a little bit beyond. Nikko has been engineered for a life in space, he can exist in the airlessness and cold of the void. He was an experiment, and now the Commonwealth license that has granted him the right to exist is running out. The degenerative disease he was purposely created with will kill him in short time.

Leander Bohr was a rebel. He created the Maker that bears his name. A device of awesome power, a full artificial intelligence, without drive or goal of its own, combined with universal nanotechnical assembling facilities. The Bohr Maker is old, but legal technology cannot surpass it due to the limits set by the Commonwealth. The personal empowerment given to its bearer is incredible.

The outlaw device might be the last chance for Nikko's survival but when it is stolen from the police files, the Maker ends up with Phousita, an illiterate prostitute in the slums of Sunda, transforming her life and that of her surroundings. A ruthless manhunt is set in motion to recpature the Bohr Maker which has the power to literally remake the world. Nikko and the Summer House, Phousita and her friends, they all are drawn into the struggle about the shape of humanity's future.

Linda Nagata's first novel holds much promise. The Bohr Maker is an intriguing book, although it suffers from various flaws, chiefly the lack of likable characters but also some unresolved plot threads. Some of the science is questionable: simple bandwidth limitations are in the way of implementing ghosts as portrayed, and (an admittely very minor point) Nikko's respiratory organ is described as a perpetuum mobile. I also thought the choice of title unfortunate, expecting Niels Bohr to be the namesake of the miraculous device. At this time we simply can't predict what the nanotech future is going to look like. Nagata's depiction will in all likelihood be off the mark, but she rather well conveys the sense of magic in store for us.

As a vista of the future, The Bohr Maker feels uncomfortably close to home. Not in the particular technical details, but rather in the spirit of the Commonwealth. The conservative forces in society, who prefer ongoing suffering over a promising future that would entail changes they can't understand, that would force them to adapt, that might curtail their personal power. Of course this resistance must prove futile in the end, but much agony will have to be endured on the long and harsh way to true progress.

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