Ten Sigma by Andrew Wang is a bit of a strange creature. Science fiction, military, thriller, psychodrama.
Something to satisfy every fan, I guess.
Science fiction, in that it deals with a future world, an extension of our own, where war, division, climate change, inequality, and poverty rule. A woman dying of cancer, facing a bleak future, is confronted by a mysterious government agent, who offers a strange bargain: in return for settling the debts of her family, she is to offer her consciousness in service through a military cyber program.
This book is the story of that service. Our protagonist has her being hoovered up and her consciousness recreated in a software world where she joins a squad of fellow novices in training through increasingly difficult battle simulations in pursuit of the fabled ten sigma level of capability.
I was impressed by the military scenarios described. Ranging across the ages, weapon types, situations of attack, defence, patrol and so on, each chapter was something new. Axes, knives, energy weapons. Islands, ruined cities, castles, abstract terrain; every battle is a fresh one.
And – and here is the brilliance of the author – each situation was perfectly clear. I found no difficulty in following the complicated actions of the various characters and squads. At each stage, the choices facing the protagonist were clear. Often unorthodox tactics were required for success. Sometimes unorthodox arms.
Each battle is readable, exciting, and tense.
The individual actions are thrilling, but also the entire story. How is the protagonist going to navigate the meta-battle? And what is it?
There are wheels within wheels. Mysteries are presented to the reader, and gradually deepened before being resolved. I was in the dark until close to the end, but if I were to read through again, I might pick up on more hints. Reader, don’t skim this. Every word is important.
And ultimately, the biggest and best battle is inside the character’s head. What are the values of this strange new cyberworld? What drives the other characters? What do you cling to as the real world recedes? What tools can be found to make life – or death – easier and more palatable?
Our protagonist is faced with any number of dilemmas. Relating to their past self, what the future might hold, the various battle scenarios, the question of leadership, friendship, enmity. And sex. As an aside, the questions of sexual attraction and perversion, rape and torture emerge as a major plot feature. Ultimately whoever deals with these questions best, determines who the reader is rooting for.
Perhaps a little predictably, the story eventually renders down to a one-on-one knife-edge struggle where the main themes are presented as determining factors.
As a story, it is a deft and gripping narrative. Once hooked, the reader is bound to finish the book. There may be perhaps a little too much tension, and perhaps not enough relief, but overall it is very well paced. The various subplots develop and are resolved, and in total, it is a richly woven tale.
Five stars for an excellent science fiction military tale. Not quite Starship Troopers for action, nor Ender’s Game for clarity, but it hits a high standard indeed.
A couple of warnings. There are scenes of sex, forced sex, and torture. Nothing openly obscene or detailed, but the reader will be in no doubt as to what is happening. Likewise the violence of battle. There is blood, bones breaking, body parts severed, intestines cascading, Not a book for the gentle soul.
Nothing gratuitous, though. The scenes fit into the narrative, and the stress is vital to keep the protagonist focussed on the importance of their choices. The reader is obliged to follow along on every mission, every decision, every slash and kick and gunshot.
I have already written about my misgivings on the fundamental premise of the story: that consciousness can somehow be captured. I don’t believe that this is true. Nobody knows exactly what consciousness is – if they did, it would surely be in every science textbook – but I don’t believe that it is something that can be found in the body or brain.
Consciousness – to my mind – is merely the awareness of sense organs. We see what comes through the eyes and is filtered in the brain. Likewise with hearing and the other physical senses. But our consciousness does not engage with light or sound or heat directly; we perceive the analysis of the brain’s perception, and we can be fooled and distracted into believing that those perceptions are reality.
Which, of course, they are not. We are also conscious of our memories, and of fictional happenings. We are aware of the imagined situations and events of the world described in this book, for example.
My biggest beef with this book is the notion that everything in the brain can be sucked up and stored in a computer. The protagonist takes along all of their memories, and that becomes a major plot device, as memories fade and increasingly desperate measures are taken to preserve that aspect of personality.
And somehow there is something unique about each instance of consciousness in this computer world. Individual personalities and traits and skills also get sucked up from the body. Our protagonist has some capacity of mind, some tenacity, some vision, that gives them an edge in combat and conflict resolution.
If it’s really a software simulation, there is none of that. Everything is known, everything can be reduced down to a Turing machine where every value is binary. There is no room for mystery and magic.
So I reject the central plank in the story.
That’s okay. I reject the magic of Harry Potter, the time travel of Back to the Future, the faster than light voyaging of Star Wars and a million other SF staples. Suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of science fiction and fantasy.
Disbelief suspended, I devoured this book. You will too.