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.

Coming Soon: Full-Text Syndication Feeds

An entry to read if you read FP via its syndication feed (especially the LiveJournal feed).

I’m planning to upgrade FP to use full-text syndication feeds sometime soon. Although my reasons for using partial feels are still relevant, I’m thinking there’s some chance of getting more readers if I use full feeds, and the more I think about it, the more the chance of that seems like a compelling reason.

If you read FP via the LiveJournal syndication account, you might find your friends list get flooded with entries when I switch over. My impression is that LJ syndication accounts aren’t very sophisticated, and that they sometimes re-post a feed entry when only the text of that entry has changed. If this happens, well, I apologize, but there’s not much I can do.

(What I do hope is that LJ won’t re-post a feed entry just because I make an edit after the initial post, which I sometimes do, usually to correct a spelling or grammatical error. That would suck. But again, nothing I can do. At least, not to my knowledge.)

I know this’ll make J.D. happy! 🙂

John Scalzi: The Android’s Dream

Review of the novel The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi.

After finishing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, I was excited to launch right into this one, which is unrelated to the Old Man’s War trilogy. Unfortunately, The Android’s Dream really wasn’t my cup of tea: It’s a very light action-adventure story with heavy dollops of farce

In the near future, mankind has joined a community of worlds, and one of its closest allies among the many alien races is the caste-bound Nidu, who communicate in part by sense of smell. One human diplomat harbors a long-standing grudge against the Nidu and sparks a diplomatic incident in a first chapter which is basically a long fart joke (with an equally-unfunny aside about meat consumption). Besides just not enjoying the chapter, it made it hard for me to take the rest of the book seriously.

Following that, Secretary of State Jim Heffer and his aide Ben Javna try to find a resolution to the dispute – the Nidu having Earth over a barrel due to the circumstances – and negotiate a deal to try to find a special breed of sheep needed for the upcoming Nidu coronation ceremony. Failure could lead to a breaking of the alliance, a result which some factions on Earth think would be a perfectly fine thing. Javna farms out the sheep-finding job to his friend Harry Creek, a low-level functionary in the government who’s actually a tremendously capable ex-soldier, and who is the book’s protagonist. Creek has the help of a cutting-edge computing resource, and in his search he meets Robin Baker, owner of a pet store with an unexpected relationship to Creek’s search. Creek and Robin are pursued by hired guns whose employers have different designs on the coronation, and there are a couple of other interested parties as well. The problems are solved with a little deus-ex-machina mixed with a little Gordian-knot-slicing.

Some of what I enjoyed about Scalzi’s other books is present here: Creek and Robin facing their pursuers in the middle of a mall is smartly written and inventively engaging. Creek’s background in the army is well-thought-out. The dialogue is sharp.

But the book is weighed down by its many frivolous and farcical elements. The Android’s Dream is filled with the sorts of ridiculous touches which turned me off of books such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Max Barry’s Jennifer Government: The extreme conclusion of mixing our meat-consuming culture with our conservationist attitudes; a church created as a scam and self-consciously maintained in that spirit (sort of the anti-Scientologists); the endless parade of rather silly aliens. It all feels more dreary than funny.

Scalzi also employs the time-worn technique of giving many of the major characters – as well as the Church of the Evolved Lamb – a lengthy expository aside in which their backstory and motivations are explained, often for humorous effect. For some reason, this technique never works for me: The backstory, even if relevant, feels extraneous, and also falls into the trap of being a big “tell-don’t-show” exercise.

And, I was disappointed that, well, there isn’t anything in the book about androids dreaming; the title refers to the breed of sheep that everyone’s trying to find. (The cover features sheep, although it also features an android. It really has almost nothing to do with the story, and thus seems a little misleading.) Of course, the title plays off the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and some have said that the book has some stylistic similarities to Dick. I’ve only read a little of Dick’s writing (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly), neither of which I enjoyed, so that’s not a selling point for me.

The book moves along fairly well after getting through the first several chapters, which set up the scenario and introduce Creek and his world, but the story just didn’t work for me. I really wanted to like this book, having enjoyed the Old Man’s War series as much as I have. But those books feature a light, bantering narrative set against a serious background with serious themes, while this book was a veneer of serious story set against a mostly-silly background with few serious themes. Not my thing.