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.

Karl Schroeder: Pirate Sun

Last time we saw Admiral Chaison Fanning, he had successfully defeated the fleet of Falcon Formation thanks to his wife Venera managing to shut down Candesce, the sun of the artificial system Virga, which actively suppresses certain technologies within the system. That was at the end of the first volume Sun of Suns, and in this third volume, we catch up with Fanning who is in ongoing interrogation in a Falcon prison. (The second volume follows Venera’s adventures.)

Someone breaks Fanning out of prison, along with two companions from his home nation of Slipstream: The young man Darius Martor, and the former ambassador Richard Reiss. But rather than hooking up with their benefactor, they’re picked up by Antaea Argyre, a member of the Home Guard, a mysterious group dedicated to preventing things from outside the balloon – the forces of what’s referred to as Artificial Nature – from getting in. The four of them hide out on a city in Falcon and spend much of the book playing cat-and-mouse with Falcon’s police forces – who are being aided by Slipstream’s people, since Fanning has been declared a traitor for attacking Falcon in defiance of Slipstream’s Pilot – while gradually making their way back to Slipstream.

I didn’t see how Schroeder was going to top the second volume in the Virga series, Queen of Candesce, which was full of exotic wondrousness set around a compelling central character in Venera Fanning. And indeed, Schroder doesn’t top it, but Pirate Sun is still a very good book.

The book is divided into three parts, the first involving the escape from prison and search for safe haven; the second an effort to defend the Falcon city of Stonecloud from being taken over by the rival nation of Gretel; and finally the party returning to Slipstream and dealing with a complicated situation there. The book’s biggest problem is that the first two parts are mostly a big lead-in to the third part, and much of it feels superfluous, especially the second part. The second part could have been much more interesting: The notion of a city in free-fall absorbing another city, and the tactics that might bs used in defense of that city, is pretty interesting, and the man leading the defense – an enhanced strongman – is also pretty interesting. But the battle rather splutters out at the end, and it felt like all the build-up had no pay-off.

The first two parts mostly serve to build up the subplots which pay off in the third part, but the structure of a running chase sequence makes those parts feel thin. There is some well-executed sense of wonder throughout it, regarding the tactics that Gretel uses to attack Falcon, but it’s not quite enough to carry the story.

The crux of the story involves Antaea, who latches on to Fanning in hopes of finding the Key to Candesce, which Venera used to shut down the sun in the first book. But the reason she’s interested has to do with what the Home Guard had to deal with during the brief outage. As a result, we learn what Artifical Nature is (and it’s cool! But frightening!) and why the book is entitled Pirate Sun (which is less cool – titles are not the series’ strong suit).

As a protagonist, Chaison is okay, but a lot less interesting than his wife. He’s sort of like Captain Sheridan in Babylon 5: A hugely competent leader with a strong sense of morality, whose sense of the right thing to do pits him against his own government, but makes him a hero to some of his subordinates. This means Fanning spends a lot of time agonizing over whether he’s done the right thing in following his instincts, but unable to reach closure until he gets back to Slipstream. Fortunately, his take-charge attitude serves him and his companions well in dealing with the challenges along the way. But his conflicts and character arc are far more vanilla than those of his more complex wife.

The story really takes off in the third part, when we meet the Pilot of Slipstream, who is both hugely annoying and yet quite capable in his own area of expertise (that being politics). With the Pilot and Antaea working against him, as well as two other interested parties who show up for the finale, Chaison has quite a minefield to navigate, and Schroeder pulls it all off adroitly, almost making up for the shortcomings of the earlier parts.

The book’s ending has an unusual quality about it: It’s not clear to me whether it’s the end of the story or not. If Schroeder decides to leave Virga as a trilogy, then that works well enough, but there also seems to be plenty of additional territory to explore, and a rich world to mine for more material. (And unless I missed something, we never did learn the origin of the bullet that hit Venera years ago.) In either case, Virga stands right now as Schroeder’s best work, a mix of cool ideas and traditional adventure storytelling adding up to really good stuff, just as challenging as his earlier books while being better written to boot. I look forward to what he comes up with next.

Karl Schroeder: Queen of Candesce

Review of the novel Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder.

The sequel to Sun of Suns – which just wrapped up being serialized in Analog – takes us back to the unusual environment of Virga, a giant balloon environment surrounding an artificial sun, Candesce, in which people live in rotating cylindrical “worlds” which drift through the space. While Sun was a nonstop tour of the space in Virga, Queen of Candesce takes place almost entirely on Spyre, one of the oldest worlds in Virga.

The novel opens with Venera Fanning drifting into its space after her escape from the circimstances at the end of Sun. She’s rescued by Garth Diamandis, an aging rake who ekes out a living in the no-man’s-land space of the main cylinder of Spyre. Venera doesn’t know whether her husband, Chaison, accomplished his mission to save their home of Slipstream, and she doesn’t know what else has happened since leaving Candesce with its key in her pocket. Garth robs her of some of her valuables as “payment” for saving her, but not trusting him to do more, she escapes and tries to jump off the edge of the world, but is instead captured and becomes a citizen of the nation of Liris.

Spyre has been divided up into thousands of small nations, most of them with a few valuable assets which they trade with other worlds, and many of them being extremely small: Liris is just a few dozen people in a single building. Liris is currently ruled by Margit, who is in fact a representative of the much larger nation of Sacrus, which is engaged in a lengthy struggle for dominance of Spyre. Not to give too much away, but this little claustrophobic nation makes for an exciting episode of the story all by itself, at the end of which Venera finds herself reunited with Garth. While Venera at first wants to leave the world, Garth presents another option: Posing as the last heir of an ancient, powerful, and defunct family and accumulating her own power base on Spyre, with which she could return to Slipstream to seek vengeance for her husband.

This takes Venera to the realm of Lesser Spyre, buildings and structures high above the main ring in which the powerful and privileged live and trade with the outside. This also brings her firmly into conflict with Sacrus, as Venera’s presence upsets the balance of power which Sacrus has been gradually upending over centuries. Venera encounters friends, enemies, rebels, tyrants, and madmen during her time on Spyre, in an adventure which is transformative for both herself and the world.

Sun of Suns was a lot of fun, and Queen of Candesce is even better. For one thing, rather than skipping among several different points of view, Queen almost entirely focuses on Venera (with time out taken for Garth a couple of times). Venera was the stand-out character of the first book, so getting inside her head for the second book is an excellent choice.

Spyre is an even more claustrophobic environment than those in Sun; despite being a huge habitat, the place feels constrained, because of the stratified social and economic environment, and the fact that Venera’s first ally – Garth – is an outcast from the social structure, living on the edge of even the society of outcasts. Therefore watching Venera – who is a dramatic and active heroine, despite her calculating nature – try to thread her way through the nations of Spyre makes for a lively plot.

The plot turns entirely on Venera’s disruption of the status quo on Spyre, and her opposition to Sacrus’ plans, as well as her delivering the Key to Candesce into this charged environment. It’s a lively story, and there’s little reason for me to spoil any of it for you, save to say that although there will clearly be more books about Virga, Queen still has a satisfying ending, and even stands on its own perfectly well. (There are a few loose plot threads, but by design: Queen is about Venera’s odyssey through Spyre, and not the larger drama throughout Virga.) Okay, the story does seem a bit roundabout when Venera stages her grand pose, but it’s all so much fun to read that I didn’t care a bit.

It’s Venera’s character arc which is worth deeper consideration: She arrives as the consummate manipulator, but deflated due to being separated from everything she knows, and with an understanding that her husband is dead. A couple of flashbacks provide insight into how she became the woman she is, but the events of Queen give her a deeper appreciation for loyalty and doing right by others who deserve it, making her an respectable figure with a sense of responsibility beyond simply that having married an admiral. Schroeder’s handling of characters has been rather bland in his novels to this point, so I’m hopeful that Queen indicates a breakthrough in his skills in this area.

Regardless, I’m eagerly looking forward to what comes next.

Karl Schroeder: Sun of Suns

Review of the novel Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder.

I read Sun of Suns over a year ago when it was serialized in Analog and neglected to review it. Which ain’t right, since I think it’s Schroeder’s best novel to date. It the first of a series, and with the second, Queen of Candesce, having just wrapped up its own Analog serialization, I decided to revisit this one.

Sun of Suns takes place in the system of Virga, which is an unusual system indeed: It’s a giant balloon, several thousand miles wide, with a small artificial sun (Candesce) at its core. Virga is mostly pressurized, so people can travel throughough the balloon at will, although at some risk, as the air quality is not consistent. Candesce lights and heats the center of Virga, but the outer reaches are too far away. Humans live in rotating cylinders which are slowly drifting throughout the system. The small “worlds” at the outer reaches light their own small suns to make them habitable. Tech level is middling: Peculiar warships and small jet-cycles propel people throughout the system.

Hayden Griffin grew up on Aerie, a world attempted to build and light its own sun when its larger neighbor Rush, capital of the nation of Slipstream, attacked it and prevented the project from being finished. Griffin’s parents died in the attack, so he focused his young life on infiltrating the house of Admiral Chaison Fanning of Rush, intending to kill him. Griffin rises to the level of a jet cycle pilot for Fanning’s wife, Venera.

Slipstream is at its own crossroads, as Admiral Fanning has learned that two of its neighbors plan to attack it, and that Slipstream’s leader, the Pilot, is heading into their trap. The Admiral assembles an expedition of a few ships to head towards Virga looking for a lost treasure with which he hopes to be able to defeat their enemies.

The book is primarily an account of their voyage, as well as an exploration of the unique environment of Virga: Small worlds, weightlessness, empty space between the worlds, yet still crossable in fairly creaky vessels. Hayden befriends Aubri Mahallan, a woman from outside Virga, who briefly describes the post-singularity universe from which they are insulated. Just as the travellers are getting adjusted to one another, they suffer a difficult encounter with pirates, and later on they search for clues to the treasure they seek in another world elsewhere in the habitat. These elements display both the relationships among the characters, and the political machinations of the story, as everyone wants something, and some people are more manipulative than others in trying to get it.

The book is filled with adventure and swashbuckling, thus making it very unlike Schroeder’s earlier novels, which are generally far more cerebral. It’s very much to the good of the story, as Schroder’s stories often seem to get overwhelmed by their ideas content, and here the balance is much closer. The combat with the pirates is vividly depicted, as is the climactic battle in the floating ships, while ample attention is also paid to hand-to-hand combat in zero gravity. The book weaves its way between high-tech and steampunk, but it stays relatively grounded, which is crucial in bringing such an exotic locale to life.

Although Hayden is the nominal hero, Venera Fanning is the most interesting character: Having been shot by a long-travelling bullet when she was younger, she hopes someday to find who fired that bullet. She also loves her husband, but is as machiavellian as he is, sometimes to his frustration. She’s the character which drives the book’s events more than Hayden is, and she certainly grabs the reader’s attention more readily.

Characters besides Venera are a mixed bag: Both Hayden and the Admiral feel somewhat generic. Of course, Hayden’s been pursuing a destructive obsession for several years, so that’s not a big surprise. Aubri is a bit of a cipher, on purpose, but she gains Hayden’s romantic affections, which only sort of works in the story: The gulf between their backgrounds is a nifty idea, but I didn’t think it played out well on paper. Then again, Aubri is one of the keys to the story’s resolution, so she’s certainly worth paying attention to.

I enjoyed Sun of Suns best of Schroeder’s books to date. It’s more accessible than his earlier novels, while still being chock-full of interesting stuff. My recommendation comes with the reservation that the ideas content might still feel overwhelming to some readers, but if you felt like Schroeder’s earlier novels weren’t quite what they should have been, I think you’ll be pleased with Sun of Suns.

Karl Schroeder: Lady of Mazes

Review of the novel Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder.

I had suggested reading something by Schroeder for the Kepler’s book discussion group, and was happy that we’d be reading this one since it’s the one book by him I haven’t read (I read Sun of Suns when it was serialized in Analog). Unfortunately, I think this is the weakest of Schroeder’s four novels to date.

The novel is told in three parts. The first part takes place on Teven Coronal, a ring station whose populace is divided up into separate “manifolds”, virtual reality spaces with different technological levels and cultures. Peoples’ perceptions are carefully regulated based on their belief systems, and it’s difficult to move between the manifolds since it requires being able to consciously change your perceptions. Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, lives in the Westerhaven manifold, which has a veneer of upper-class Renaissance culture (where authority and reputation govern who’s willing to interact with and listen to you), but with a sophisticated technological level. But Livia and her friend Aaron were in an accident some years earlier in which they were stranded outside the manifolds, and this experience changed their perceptions of Teven, and Livia is able to move between the manifolds more easily than most of her peers.

In this part, Teven is invaded by representatives of something called 3340, who are subverting the manifolds by pushing the peoples’ perceptions to the edges of what their manifolds support, which causes the boundaries between them to collapse, resulting in war between the manifolds. Livia, Aaron, and their ally Qiingi – from a low-tech manifold – manage to escape the invaders and cast off into space in a makeshift craft, in seek of help.

This leads to the second part, in which they arrive in the Archipelago, a society of stations in the vicinity of Jupiter. There they learn that Teven is in a part of space which is kept off-limits to the rest of humanity through the authority of powerful posthumans known as the Anecliptics. One of Teven’s founders gained the right to the station through a bargain with the Anecliptics, but no one else is allowed in, making hope of allies to save Teven look bleak. The Archipelago is rather the opposite of Teven: Individuals freely interact, but each has their own computer-managed “narrative” which nourishes their lives to make them as comfortable and rewarding as possible. A handful of people choose to live without narratives, but they’re in the minority. Among these is Doran Morss, a rich man with his own ship who seeks to free humanity from the oversight of the Anecliptics and the narrative system, but his pleas mostly fall on deaf ears.

Livia and company find their way in the Archipelago, covertly trying to find someone to help them save Teven, until they learn what 3340 is and what its goals are. This leads into the third part, in which we learn about Teven’s history, the Anecliptics’ mistakes, and 3340’s plans and allies.

Once again, Schroeder delivers the goods in the form of some thought-provoking and challenging ideas, contrasting the homogeneous society of the Archipelago with the forcibly-separated ones on Teven, and driving the plot with the struggle to free oneself from societal constraints imposed by higher beings. But unfortunately the goods come along with some “bads”: The book’s themes and struggles feel so abstract, and its characters so one-dimensional, that it’s very difficult to figure out what the various sides are, never mind which ones to get behind.

The book is extremely slow to get moving, although others in our discussion appreciated the first part (of three) for its cultural anthropological examinations. I felt like I got the idea rather quickly, and I wish for character development and for the plot to get moving, but it wasn’t until the second part the either happened, and then it was only the latter; the characters never did develop very much. Doran Morss could have been the most interesting character in the book – experienced, thoughtful, passionate – but we only saw brief glimpses of his feelings, so he was only slightly more than a peripheral figure – not much more than a plot device to enable 3340’s ultimate goal, really.

The final third felt quite muddled to me; although Livia’s resolution to the basic problem of 3340 was pretty clever, the story tailed off after that, with a set of epilogues (of sorts) which just didn’t work for me.

There are a lot of crunchy ideas here, but I think Schroeder just didn’t organize them into a good story. The book actually bears a lot of resemblance to his first novel, Ventus, which I’d say was his weakest book before I read this one, but it feels more concrete and like it flows more smoothly, even if its ideas are more conservative. But story counts for a lot, and the story here was both thin and scattered. A disappointment.