First contact is one of the oldest themes of the SF lore, and yet, Nylund makes it look fresh. Signal to Noise and its sequel A Signal Shattered combine different elements to make an entertaining read. A slice of cyberpunk, a dose of paranoia, non-stop action and some hard SF, these are the ingredients. Jack Potter, the hero of the duology, has found the signals SETI has always been searching for, steganographically hidden, transmitting a blueprint for an FTL communication device.
The universe is a harsh place. Make contact with the wrong guys, and your civilization is toast. That’s what happens in the first Jack Potter book. But while some writers would use this as the endpoint for a cautionary tale, it’s just the begin in Nylund’s books. Sure, at the end of Signal to Noise most humans have been killed, with only a handful surviving, spread out over the galaxy, the threat of an all powerful alien still looming above their heads. It’s all just everyday business for Wheeler, the alien who Jack Potter contacted in the first book, who gave technologies to the humans that in the end proved their downfall. But the same technologies might also be their, and the salvation for all intelligent species that are threatened by Wheeler’s business.
While technology is one of the driving forces in Nylund’s books, the thing that has an even deeper impact on the characters is trust or its lack. Two of Jack’s best friends become his enemies, and that’s partly due to him keeping secrets. But too much trust, as in the case of Wheeler, can be equally destructive. That’s where the paranoia aspect comes into play. Whom can Jack trust, and whom not? In the end, there’s no universal answer, but Jack learns that you have to trust at least one person, or you’re all alone in the universe. And being completely alone or not makes all the difference.