Earth is involved in an interstellar war, and almost no one knows it.
High-level politicians know, of course, and the upper levels of the McConwell Corporation, which owns the gnostic system which is actually running the war. What no one wants to tell the public is not just that Earth is at war with an alien species, but that it's a war over the planet Argus--where Earth's colonial fleet is headed, intending to colonize.
The colonial fleet has FTL drive, but relatively slow; they've been en route for years, while technology has advanced. Earth--or, more accurately, the gnostic core--has sent robot ships using stargate technology, to further explore the Argus system, and those ships have encountered the aliens.
We eventually discover that the aliens call themselves the El, and they believe Argus is their lost homeworld. They are not inclined to risk loss of their newly-rediscovered homeworld to the Outsiders (humans.) And, severely crippling any efforts at peaceful resolution, the El, unable to translate the signals they are getting from Earth's robot ships, believe that their only possible response is to treat those signals as challenges--and respond accordingly.
Meanwhile, on Earth, policy-makers have decided that given the complete failure to communicate with the aliens, the only possible course is to win the war quickly, so that the colony fleet will be safe when it arrives.
The gnostic core sees that this approach isn't working, and wants to try a different approach. It can't override its orders from the government--so it recruits some help.
Ramo, an artist, and Sage, a gnostic designer, are completely out of their depth in the dangerous waters of planetary politics, and they don't even like each other, but the Core has in its own way befriended each of them. Sage has a personal interest in the safety of the colony fleet; his brother Tony is on it. Ramo is seduced by the Core's need and the opportunity to use his talent in new ways.
What they, the Core, and all their friends don't know is that life, politics, and war are all about to get completely out of hand, and far more complicated than they ever imagined.
The plotting is solid, the characters are solid, and there's a grand imagination of the future here. Carver always delivers, and this book is no exception.
I borrowed this book from a friend.