We’re in the world of 2235 and there are more than a dozen interstellar colonies, linked to Earth through a central wormhole terminus, the Lunar Array at the Copernicus crater on the moon. Earth dominates the colonies through the machinations of the paramilitary Array Security and Immigration (ASI) organization.

Behind the scenes there is a deeper secret. The inner core of the ASI has found another wormhole network, ancient and alien, created by the Founders who have since vanished far up the timeline. The novel opens with an elite ASI team exploring a Founder construct one hundred trillion years in the future, scavenging for artifacts and future weapons systems they cannot understand. Naturally something goes wrong as one of the team, Mitchell Stone, falls into a mysterious pool. Somehow Mitchell escapes, in a confused mental state, and is bundled back to earth.

Meanwhile Saul Dumont, another ASI agent, is trying to penetrate criminal gangs on one of the colony planets – a mission which goes horribly wrong. His superiors give him an ultimatum: either a formal investigation followed by career ruin, or he must work as an undercover agent to find who is leaking ASI secrets, secrets Saul will not be cleared to know.

It now turns out that the ASI has used one of the Founder wormholes to travel ten years into the future, a future where a sterile Earth has been cleared of all human life. The mission also discovers that the Lunar Array at Copernicus crater has been blown up and the only survivor was (will be?) Mitchell Stone, found frozen there in a cryo-lab. Stone is brought back to the Earth of 2235 (so now there are two Mitchell Stones here!) and interrogated. How was human life on earth eradicated? He’s strangely not keen to cooperate.

The plot picks up pace as it becomes clear that a returned Founder artifact was responsible, a device which was hijacked from the ASI using insider knowledge and which crashed into the ocean as the ‘earlier’ Mitchell Stone was brought back to Earth from the original far-future mission. Gigantic structures begin to self-assemble in the oceans, their destructive purpose unclear.

Saul is desperate to close down the wormhole transit system before the alien menace can wipe out all of humanity. Yet Mitchell Stone seems to believe that the alien genocide is actually a positive thing. It’s a race to the self-destruct mechanism on the moon as we wonder who will win, and more to the point, who ought to win?

This is old-school plot-led science fiction from Gary Gibson (who belongs to the school of Scottish SF writers which also includes Ken Macleod and Iain M. Banks). It’s an easy read with plenty of exciting action. Gary’s male characters are fairly indistinguishable: blokeish and action-oriented, kind of generic career-military. His few female characters are stock personalities, there to drive the plot forward. The same can be said for the cartoonish bad guys.

Gibson is still in development as a writer and is at his best in the action sequences. More interest in the personalities and motivations of his characters would give his work more depth, however. He should also work on plot sophistication and coherence – there are too many irrelevancies and loose ends. Gibson is good on tactical scenes – the hijack of the Founder artifact and the Saturn 5 escape to the moon are done well -but the overall storyline is a little predictable. The setting too needs more attention: the overall effect is of a shallow, secondhand patchwork-quilt of standard SF building-blocks rather than an organic realization of a new and imaginative universe-concept. Still, the pages turn quite adequately.

At 372 pages this is a big book, but key issues are left unresolved for a sequel. Gibson has just completed the manuscripts for a follow-up novel in the same universe, ‘The Thousand Emperors’, which should be on bookstands next year.