Signal to Noise

Posted by : atcampbell | On : February 1, 2000

Signal to Noise by Eric S. Nylund

Seven people attended the discussion of Signal to Noise. This is a near future SF novel about a math professor, Jack Potter, who is an expert at cryptography. While analyzing patterns in supposedly random astronomical signals, he discovers a coded message from an alien civilization. Jack and a couple of his colleagues try to establish communication with the aliens while avoiding spies from various governments who are trying to steal their research.

This novel had several interesting elements. This book’s approach to communication with aliens is novel. The scenes of scientists conducting research seem well thought out. The scientists use a lot of Virtual Reality in their research, allowing Nylund to explore some fascinating and exotic imagery reminiscent of Zelazny in The Dream Master and the Amber books. Merging a standard hard SF theme with an espionage plot works surprisingly well.

Unfortunately we had problems with the writing. We felt no emotional connection with the characters. They each had a name, a gender, and a profession, but none had any personality. Some of this was intentional for the spy story angle of “who can you trust?” Unfortunately the main character wasn’t likable or interesting enough to carry the book for us, and he did not seem nearly as smart as he was supposed to be. We also found the book had pacing problems. The story never seems to generate any intensity, even in a scene where the protagonist is stranded on the moon with only a few hours of oxygen!

Overall we could only give this book a moderate recommendation. The science and the aliens are interesting, but the characters and writing are nothing special. If this suits your taste, go for it.

I should mention something unusual about this discussion. Eric Nylund discovered on our group’s web page that we were discussing Signal to Noise, and he offered to answer our questions about it. We conducted a mini-interview with him by e-mail, and I’ve posted it separately.

–A. T. Campbell, III