Lost in Transmission is the third of Wil McCarthy's novels set a few centuries in the future in the Queendom of Sol (and successor states). I have enjoyed all these novels, and I feel they are improving as the series continues. One reason for this may be the increasing dark tone -- the first novel was in some ways a Tom Swiftian tour of fun technology, while the subsequent novels have focussed increasingly on the human problems of McCarthy's future. I rank Lost in Transmission one of the best SF novels of 2004.
All three books are set in a wondrous technological future, based largely on programmable matter and on instantaneous matter transmission. Crucially, the latter wonder also leads to near immortality: one can be maintained at any desired age by filtering software in the "faxes," and one can be reinstantiated from stored copies in case of accident. In the first two novels, we saw how this bounty led to near-utopian conditions, but how human nature represented the snake in that garden. The first novel, The Collapsium, is an episodic story in which the great scientist Bruno de Towaji thrice saves the Solar System from destruction. Here the problem is human jealousy and the great power available from such high tech. In the second novel, The Wellstone, Bruno's son Bascal and his friends, frustrated by the place of youth in a world of immortals, play a number of increasingly dangerous pranks, and end up exiled to Barnard's Star.
Lost in Transmission, then, is the story of the journey to Barnard's Star and the effort to colonize one of the planets of that star. The main character, as in The Wellstone, is Bascal's close friend Conrad Mursk. Conrad is First Mate of the Newhope, their starship. His lover Xiomara Li Weng, or Xmary, is the Captain. Bascal is the leader of the expedition and will be King once the new planet is reached. Conrad himself is a rather stolid young man, though perhaps not so stolid as he seems to think. His goal is to be an architect. He often feels pushed into Bascal's shadow: the other man is much more overtly brilliant, a poet, and a more energetic leader. But this relationship evolves a great deal throughout this book.
The journey to Barnard's Star takes a number of mostly uneventful decades. Conrad and most of the others spend the bulk of their time stored in fax memory, but Bascal stays "awake" the whole way. This more or less drives him mad. Once at the new planet, the group is faced with the job of terraforming a rather un-Earthlike place. They do this in part by altering themselves, in part by changing the planet and its fauna. They also colonize (to a small extent) the star system.
Here lies the heart of the novel, for it turns out that despite the incredibly high technology at hand, the colonists are resource-limited. Over time, it becomes harder and harder to guarantee regular fax updates, or even resurrection from accidents. Class divisions arise. Some people choose to alter themselves -- to flying forms, or to centaurs, or trolls: not always with happy results. Children are "born" from fax machines into an adolescent body, also with less than always happy results. Bascal's grip on his Kingdom depends more and more on the use of force.
I thought the novel was a very effective look at real limits to a seemingly miraculous technology. I found its treatment of economic problems well thought out, and its treatment of the personal problems of people living hundreds of years is also worthwhile. (Conrad's off again, on again, relationship with Xmary, and his increasingly difficult relationship with Bascal, being especially well done.) McCarthy's writing is strong as well -- he maintains a sardonic, sometimes funny, sometimes mordant tone throughout. He has fun with altering his third person voice on occasion -- quite effectively, I thought. As I said, one of my favorite books of the year.
This novel and its predecessor are each framed with chapters set in the future of both, after Conrad, much changed and much older, has returned to the Solar System. The home planet, it is clear, has gone through some terrible times of its own, reflecting yet further complications of the Queendom's very high tech level. In the next novel, we are told, Conrad will "save the world... in a manner of speaking". I look forward eagerly to that story.