Owl's Nest

Arclight and the Fade


This book means a lot to me.

Sure, it's a dystopian Y/A novel with a love triangle (gah, just form a polycule already!), a uniquely special protagonist who doesn't fit in with her peers, and all the usual trappings of the genre, but there's something about it that's held me ever since I first picked it up all the way back in middle school.

What's it about?

The basic idea is this: a tech-based apocalypse destroyed the world as we know it. Humanity created nanomachines ("nanites"), which are machines small enough to need a microscope to see them. They were made in hopes of improving medical care, and it was a breakthrough. Unfortunately, that breakthrough turned into the Gray Goo scenario, killing off most of humanity and leaving the majority of the Earth entirely uninhabitable.

All that's left of humanity is a small compound protected by bright lights; the nanites are light-sensitive, so a ring of lights is the main defense humanity has. Fire is the other main defense (which becomes very relevant at one point- burn your crush's arm to save his life, anyone?). Humanity's been cornered in this compound for several generations now, and a whole cohort of kids has been brought up having never seen the world outside. New York City might as well be a fairy tale. It's an apocalypse that's not going anywhere, and it's one that can't be built past. Humanity is holding on for dear life.

It's not all gray goo out there. A whole simulated ecosystem has developed out of the nanites. There are plants, animals, rocks, you name it- even people. There's a whole hivemind out there called the Fade (more on that in a few paragraphs).

The main character is named Marina, and she's the only person who's ever shown up from outside the compound. According to everyone she knows, she just walked in one day from god-knows-where, offering hope that there might be another stronghold out there. Marina hasn't the slightest clue. She doesn't remember anything from before her arrival at the compound. She's not even sure who she is. What she does know is that the Fade seem determined to get her. The book kicks off with the Fade breaking into the compound, something that never happened before her arrival. It leads to a difficult journey of Marina discovering who she is and where she came from, a process that involves wrestling with who she used to be and who she is now.

Spoilers for the book's big reveal!

It turns out that Marina wasn't a human survivor at all. She didn't travel from elsewhere to the compound; she was kidnapped from the Fade, who aren't nearly as malevolent as humanity thinks they are, and used for an experiment in converting the Fade to humans. Her nanites were purged from her system against her will, and the pain-relief inhaler she relies on throughout the book is a suppressant to keep them from coming back. Learning this completely changes her world and leaves her unsure of who she is. Is she Cherish, a Fade girl beloved by her family and partner, or is she Marina, a human girl taken in by the compound and cared for by an adopted family? She's caught between two worlds and has to decide how to navigate that.

Ultimately, she decides to embrace the gray-zone self she is now rather than the ghosts of who she used to be. It's not extensively followed up on; there's a second book that continues her story (and a third supposedly in the works that I've been waiting on for five or six years now), but I honestly didn't love the second book and only barely consider it canon. In the second book, aspects of her old self continue to return to her, and she winds up having an awfully plural experience where she shares a head with her Fade self. That's not exclusive to the second book, but it's a lot more obvious there.

We also learn the reason humanity fears the Fade in the second book. The nanites that showed up during the initial apocalypse were a lot harsher and utterly destroyed the people they consumed. The nanites in the Fade have evolved from those into something much more friendly to life, and they've been trying to protect themselves and humanity from those harsher nanites.

The Fade

The Fade are the thing that's kept this book in my mind for all these years. There's something about them that resonates very deeply with me. They're what happens when you put nanites in humans, and they're described as very pale humanoids with iridescent black hair, blue-and-silver eyes, and black markings across their skin from the nanites in their bodies. The Fade we meet throughout the book use these nanites as an extension of themselves. They're shields, healing tools, camouflage, and communication vectors. Nanites are absolutely crucial to their functioning. Interestingly, the Fade are pale because the nanites prevent the production of melanin for reasons that are never explained.

"The markings you saw are microorganisms that live off the host body. They're photosensitive themselves, but also exist in such a way that they prevent the production of melanin when bonded. Under normal levels of direct light, they'll darken the host's skin. Under extreme conditions, the nanites extend their shielding in a more dynamic way. [...] They're the legacy of the world before. The nanites were designed for medical use— tiny, sentient machines that could save lives when human hands couldn't. But instead of that dream, we got this nightmare. They replicated and spread so fast, they couldn't be contained. Their creators lost control, and then we lost everything else."

The next quote is from the first time we actually get to see a Fade:

It's not the kind of face I expected. There's no damage. No rot. It's not the desiccated corpse form of some monster from a story. Monsters I can handle, but this...

It looks like a teenage boy.

Stripped of its robes and bindings, the Fade has skin as pale as the ghost moths that sneak in at night when the shutters stick open. Hair hangs loose around its face with the sheen of a bird's wing— jet black, but reflecting other colors as it falls. It hardly looks like hair at all, more like a spray of fine crystals spun into strands. Eyes so light blue they're almost clear look straight at— and through— me. Well-formed muscles move under skin marked with the same blackened patterns I watched security burn out of Tobin's carpet.

Those sharp raptor's eyes change, turning darker around the rim so the color bleeds toward the centers. [..] It steps to the side and cocks its head, angling for a better look. The movement isn't human; it's too fluid.

[...] The patterns on his skin come alive, branching out across his chest and down his limbs. They weave across his face into delicate lines more intricate than lace.

The Fade are a hivemind, but they're a different sort of hivemind than they first appear to be. It's more like a vast telepathic network than a true melding of identities. Everyone is in communication with everyone, and this significantly affects their culture. They're all very close to one another and draw from a common pool of experiences. Names are sensory impressions, not words. Emotions are felt as smells and sights, and they're something that can be influenced directly. Verbal speech tends to feel unnatural to them; why speak out loud when you can telepathically share the exact idea you want to communicate?

I'm seeing through a thousand eyes at once. Voices in number and variation I thought impossible stream from everything and everywhere. Whispers and shouts flow side by side, and neither overpowers the other.

"What is that?"

"Us," Rue says, then the sounds stop. "And that's human."

Pieces start to align. What Honoria calls a parasite is what Rue calls a part of him. The Fade aren't a contagion— they're a hive, and they don't understand why we're not.

"We are everything. One together." Rue fumbles through descriptions that can't capture a tenth of what he shows me.

A bit further in:

"Most of the included have no concept of human speech or how their way of all speaking and thinking everything at once sounds to us. Their bodies aren't static; their natural state is in flux, so they're used to it."

Their names are one of the things I love most. There are a handful of them that are described in the first book:

Her name isn't Blanca, or anything that can be spoken. The baby-Fade clinging to my neck and wrapping her legs around my torso is the scent of air and the way it sounds when it blows through the trees, the color of flowers at our feet. My flowers, hidden and protected in the Arclight's garden. Flowers that flourish in my mind, drawn by a child's imprecise hand, over and over.

Through Cherish's eyes, his name changes from an expression of sorrow to a bird song, and cool rain through the canopy leaves.

Her face brings memories of the scent of pine trees and the prickly snag of green needles.

...a tall, severe-looking Fade in black denim, whose presence conjures images of storm clouds and lightning as it splits a rotted tree...

There's something about them that's stuck with me. Maybe it's the way they interact with each other, or the way they communicate in such a familiar manner, but the Fade alone have made this book a keeper for me. They're why I love it. They're so intimately connected to each other and the world around them, constantly influencing each other's thoughts and emotions and actions. It's beautiful and feels like home.


Written .

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