The first in a projected seven-book science fiction series, Joshua W. Cotter’s Nod Away draws you in with the human drama, but keeps the science fiction elements of the story mostly at bay, creating a mysterious mist that hangs on people’s lives as they cope with the little moments, oblivious to the larger mysteries that are about to impact them.
Neurometrics scientist Dr. Melody McCabe has taken an assignment on a space station to work on a wormhole project meant to save some portion of the human race find a new home. McCabe also works on her longterm project, the so-called “innernet,” an internet-like network that flows through people with compatible minds. This is a controversial project largely because a human child, Eva, is being used as a form of router for the entire network and has attracted the ire of a fundamentalist religious group that mounts attacks on the project’s labs.
McCabe juggles her new on-station responsibilities with the awkwardness of acclimating herself to the limited living space and the dynamics of the staff there, as well as the crumbling relationship with her husband, accentuated through forced, awkward long distance conversations.
Everything takes a turn at a ceremony to open the wormhole that ends up in disaster, with the futures of the projects moving into jeopardy and the questions of what is actually happening in the universe beginning to push aggressively into the dull pastime of just getting by on a space station.
Cotter juxtaposes this story with unexplained sequences of a hermit on a planet, traversing the rocky, alien terrain looking for something using minimal technology.
The concerns of Cotter’s work — the ethics of science, the perils of tampering with the unknown, the politicization of human life, the effects of isolation, the embrace of overwork in place of personal space, the definition of what is human, the incidence of casual professional sexism — none of these are hard to pull out of the narrative at all. He lays them right there for you to track.
What makes the work so compelling is Cotter’s ability to let things unfold at a precise pace, allowing us to get to know the characters and setting up a sequence of drama that doesn’t really give you the tools to guess what is coming next. And yet with each unexpected moment, the actions of the characters, because he has given such care to them, remain true and consistent, becoming the anchor in the wild ride.
The book ends with no answers but many questions, as cryptic as anything you have read, but the world Cotter has crafted is so filled with depth that the mysterious quality at the end only points to the great potential of the series, building on what it has already achieved. Excited for a second volume!