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Karl Schroeder: The Sunless Countries

After Pirate Sun, which brought to a close the events in the first three books of Virga, I wasn’t sure whether Karl Schroeder planned to write more in the universe or if that was it (at least for now). While there were some loose ends, it formed a loose trilogy around three characters, Hayden Griffin, Venera Fanning, and her husband Admiral Chaison Fanning, as they embarked on an odyssey through Virga – a 5000-mile-wide, pressurized balloon in space – to stop their home nation of Slipstream from being destroyed by a more powerful rival. Along the way we learned a lot about how Virga works, and the wide diversity of civilizations that live within it.

As it turns out, there is more, and The Sunless Countries is the first book with a protagonist not from Slipstream, thus presenting a somewhat different view of Virga. Leal Maspeth is a young historian in the city of Sere, a collection of wheels in the sunless counties of Virga, the giant pressurized balloon within which the series takes place. Leal has been frustrated by not being able to crack the faculty of the university, and even more frustrated with the Eternists who are in power in Sere, a party who believe that Virga has always existed, rather than having been constructed by humans (and others) thousands of years ago. Sere is visited by Hayden Griffin, the heroic Sun Lighter, whose deeds in creating a new sun for his nation of Aerie have made him famous, but who has an uneasy relationship with the government.

Worse than the Eternists, something is lurking out in the dark, something which is probably responsible for disappearing ships around Sere and whose origins may hearken back to the origins of Virga. The government slowly moves to action, more for show than for effect, and Leal thinks she has some idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, her theories run contrary to Eternist dogma, and her hopes of proving herself right fade when the government takes over the university to reconstruct it along their own ideals, barring people from the library.

Schroeder continues to explore the ramifications of living in Virga, this time focusing on a relatively isolated nation without a sun, and what being surrounded in perpetual darkness means. His characters are always well-realized, as none of the protagonists of each novel feels much like any of the others. Leal actually feels a little more generic than the others, especially by contrast with Griffin, who has grown up a lot since he starred in the first book, and who is a leader but arguably not a natural one. Leal’s backstory involves deceased parents and a frustrated career as a scholar, making her a melancholy figure, but one whose beliefs strongly oppose those of the Eternists.

Schroeder uses Leal and the Eternists to score some social commentary points, as the Eternists conduct a referendum about the nature of truth, such that any disputed truths in Sere will be decided by public vote. It’s an incisive commentary on the dangers of direct public government, as well as a grenade lobbed at the opponents of scientific principles, such as creationists. Tyranny of the majority, when that majority votes based on irrational belief rather than rationality and evidence is a frightening and dangerous thing.

The Sunless Countries also delves deeper into the origins and history of Virga, and what lies outside it, the post-singularity phenomenon named Artificial Nature. Schroeder’s take on posthuman society is a little different from what I’ve seen elsewhere, arguably taking that portrayed in Charles Stross’ Accelerando a step further. He’s also starting to work through the implications of posthuman cultures living alongside human cultures, a scenario whose surface has only been scratched in the fiction I’ve read so far.

The novel works much better when dealing with the political, historical and science-fictional elements than it does in its character-based drama: Its setting and the exploration thereof is so rich and deep that it seems Schroeder can keep plumbing it forever. On the other hand, Leal is pushed into a position where she has to decide among several unsavory options, one of which would fulfill her dreams at the cost of her integrity, but the decision feels a little too mechanical, not as heartfelt as it could have, not to me, anyway.

Despite that, The Sunless Countries is probably the second-best of the series so far, behind Queen of Candesce. It’s clearly the first of a longer story (a second trilogy?) and it ends on something of a cliffhanger, but the potential for more neat stuff is so clearly evident that you can believe I’ll be around for the rest of the story. The Virga series is some of the very best hard SF being published today.