Tag Archives: Karl Schroeder

Sun of Suns, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2006, 318 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31543-2

After three solid hits with Ventus, Permanence and Lady of Mazes, I can state with confidence that Karl Schroeder writes the kind of Science Fiction that keeps me a fan of the genre: Intelligent, literate extrapolations of technological trends, with strong narrative qualities and intriguing relevance to the way we live. Schroeder’s fiction is dense and (initially) difficult, but it’s challenging on a number of philosophical, social and creative levels and ultimately rewarding in ways that are unique to the Science Fiction genre.

(Not that you can trust me when it comes to Karl Schroeder: I’ve known him for years, and can’t pretend to any objectivity when it comes to reviewing his fiction. You’ve been warned.)

With Sun of Suns, Schroeder tackles a looser style, with more attention paid to adventure and visual special effects than to deep intellectual concerns. Unlike his three previous novels, this one has been conceived as pure entertainment in the planetary romance tradition, even despite the conspicuous absence of a planet. Think of it as a micro-gravity swashbuckler and you won’t be too far-off.

Imagine a gigantic sphere of tough carbon material floating in space. Now fill this sphere with air and put a blazing sun in the middle. Now put in tons of water, organic material, nanotechnology as well as, oh, people and let everything evolve for centuries. Now peek inside.

You may find that this sphere, Virga, has evolved in ways not entirely dissimilar to nineteenth-century empires, loosely arranged around smaller peripheral suns. You will see people travelling from one spinning wooden city to another by way of wooden ships and pedal-powered personal flyers. You may find courtroom intrigue, piracy, naval battles, rich characters, outsiders and hints of higher technology coming from outside Virga.

At least that’s what you’ll get in Sun of Suns. Schroeder has cleverly invented a brand-new hard-SF setting (reminiscent, but not similar to Larry Niven’s Integral Trees) and has filled it with an environment ripe for adventure. As a piece of entertainment, Sun of Suns is pure delight: the world starts making sense almost immediately, and part of the fun is in seeing Schroeder work out the implications of his creation, with all of the consequences and rich dramatic possibilities that they imply.

A fascinating group of characters are lucky enough to inhabit this fantastic new world. An orphan with a revenge fantasy; an avowed manipulator who misses courtroom backstabbing; a scientist with secrets to hide; an admiral that can be both driven and friendly; and a nondescript man with skills no one can predict: all come to form the backbone of the novel’s appeal, making Sun of Suns more than an empty exercise in world-building.

But don’t think that Schroeder has completely abandoned the type of high-end intellectual speculation that has marked his fiction so far. Beyond Virga’s astonishing world-building (including a spectacular segment from the point of view of a “lost” bullet), he suggests a number of intriguing possibilities about the world outside: A line about a “Chinese Room Personality” had me grinning for minutes, while other hints about “flexible realities” outside Virga remind us that Schroeder’s favourite themes may not be as far away as we think.

While this may not be Schroeder’s most intellectually fulfilling book, it’s his most accessible solo novel so far: The adventures of the characters are thrilling, the guided tour of Virga’s strange new environment feels exhilarating and the novel’s steady forward momentum will disappoint few readers. I was pleased to note that the novel’s “click point” (the moment at which the background makes sense) was only a few pages in, compared to Lady of Mazes which required a substantial reading investment before paying off. It suggests that Schroeder will be able to re-use this “new” sense of fun and accessibility (which should be no surprise to readers of The Claus Effect) to further enhance his next works of fiction. If everything works well, Sun of Suns will earn Schroeder a legion of new fans and happy critics.

Your mind will be satisfied and your swash will be buckled: what more could you ask for, a sequel? Well you’re in luck, then: Queen of Candesce is coming out in 2007, with a third volume coming up sometime later.

[September 2008: Queen of Candesce is a bit better upon re-reading, but there’s no denying that it feels like a side-show after the events of Sun of Suns. It follows dangerous Venera Fanning as she ends up on a decaying habitat rife with small conflicts; they don’t stand a chance against her political instincts and the unbelievable coincidences that propel her from one advantageous position to another. The mystery of the bullet is solved, not entirely satisfactorily. Some of the chapter transitions are choppy, but the feeling of rousing adventure remains.]

[October 2008: Volume three, Pirate Sun, feels more like a true follow-up to Sun of Suns, but suffers from its own internal side-show moments. Following Admiral Chaisson Fanning as he escapes from captivity and returns, disgraced, to his homeland, it too has the usual amount of swashbuckling goodness we’ve come to expect from the Virga series (albeit with a bit more material about the Artificial Nature that threatens the habitat from outside). But some parts feel useless, especially when they don’t amount to much. It’s a good read, but nothing more, and the newness of Virga is wearing thin. It’s time for Schroeder to return to meatier subjects.]

Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2005, 286 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31219-0

After only two solo novels (Ventus and Permanence), Karl Schroeder has already established himself to be one of the best Hard-SF writers in the business. Combining deep characterization with far-ranging speculation, Schroeder has wowed critics and earned a small legion of loyal fans —not to mention an Aurora Award for Permanence. His third solo novel was eagerly anticipated. Now Lady of Mazes comes to fulfil all expectations.

Almost jokingly set in the same universe as Ventus, Lady of Mazes owes more to the short scene in Permanence where the characters’ reality is altered by an interface sitting between their brain and their senses. Inscape, as it’s called, can be used to augment reality in different fashions. An elementary application would be to kill-file people in real life: Inscape would simply “blank out” the person and steer us around that person should they be in the way. (Kill-filing would presumably be most effective when it’s mutual.)

But that’s just small potatoes when you consider the logical ramifications of Inscape technology. Why bother kill-filing one person when you can get rid of an entire segment of the population? Why not create a conservative utopia by getting rid of all of those icky liberal meddlers –and vice versa? What’s to prevent several mutually invisible population from co-existing in the same physical space?

And that brings us to the first few pages of Lady of Mazes, a story largely set on a ringworld where Inscape technology is universal. Several populations co-existing in the same place, completely ignorant of what the others are doing. You want to ignore certain types of technologies? Join the appropriate reality. One of Schroeder’s key notions are “technology locks”, the idea that societies choose their appropriate levels of technology for their preferred existence and then implement safeguards to prevent further progress.

Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, may exists in one reality, but she also has the unusual ability to “travel” to other realities, acting much like an ambassador. Not an esy job, and it becomes even more complicated when the ringworld is attacked and the help she needs exists in a completely different way of life. Post-human power games and unusual social structures suddenly acquire some importance as she tries to go back and liberate her home reality…

Lady of Mazes may be significantly shorter than Schroeder’s previous solo novels, but don’t be fooled by the size: There are enough Big Ideas here to make you go “Whoah!” ten times over. Schroeder tackles new and fascinating concepts at a furious rate, showing us a complex future crammed with original possibilities. Your head will hurt, but in a good way. Inscape alone is the kind of new idea fit to be stolen by a generation of other writers and integrated in the core of SF’s bag of gadgets.

But in Lady of Mazes, Schroeder has also managed to fashion a cheerfully political novel. Pure politics, not simple dumb partisanship: Lady of Mazes takes a long hard look at how humans can live next to another —or choose not to. It studies concepts such as “adhocracies” and “open source politics” and “emergent social organization systems.” It stares at post-humanism and laughs at it.

Exhilarating stuff, with the proviso that you almost have to be a hard-core SF fans to make sense of it. Lady of Mazes is a pure genre novel in that it requires a lot of background information in order to make sense. Can’t distinguish animas from AIs? Tough luck.

To this, one has to add that Schroeder loves to throw his readers in the bath before handing them the soap: The first hundred pages of the novel are high in unexplained weirdness and low in straight-up exposition. Don’t be surprised to find the first third of the book to be a difficult slog. It clears up shortly afterwards, once we’re back in a reality whose language is more familiar to ours. But then buckle up, because the rest of the novel rarely lets up. The conclusion appears a bit rushed and easy, but by that time the chances are that you’ll be too exhausted to care.

It’s definitely a trip, and a strange one at that. With this third novel, Schroeder proves that he’s among the vanguard of modern SF writers, not afraid to confront a new future by wrapping fascinating speculation in good storytelling. Fabulous stuff for SF fans: it’s the kind of novel that makes Science Fiction look good.

The Engine of Recall, Karl Schroeder

Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2005, 271 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-88995-323-6

There are books whose very existence is enough to make me want to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” Karl Schroeder’s Engine of Recall is one of those: before labelling me a fist-pumping yes-shouting weirdo, take a look at the author, the publisher and the fact that this is a short-story collection of ten hard-SF stories.

Karl Schroeder is one of the best hard-SF writers in the world today. He may not have a long publishing history so far, but his first two novels speak for themselves: Ventus and Permanence both feature rich characters, top-notch extrapolation and beautiful writing. Schroeder understands the nature of genre SF like few others (he co-wrote the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, after all) and his material integrates science with fiction like few other writers.

Robert J. Sawyer Books, as the grandiose name suggests, is a small press imprint edited by hard-SF writer Robert J. Sawyer. Already one of English Canada’s two biggest genre publisher (along with Edge/Tesseracts), RJS Books confirms the emergence of a strong genre industry in Canada and now allows the publication of books that may otherwise go nowhere in today’s increasingly consolidated publishing environment. The very thought that Robert J. Sawyer may allow Karl Schroeder to publish a short-story collection (never a viable commercial project) is enough to cheer me up.

Finally, consider the promise of ten short stories by Karl Schroeder. Most of them had previously appeared in small magazines, so it’s a real treat to see them enjoy a wider distribution in book format. All of those stories conform to some definition of Hard-SF, though some of them extend from “supernatural events that are described in what must be a rational fashion” to “near-contemporary techno-thriller”.

“The Dragon of Pripyat” is one of those techno-thrillers, set in a near-future where the UN employs a specialized troubleshooter, Gennady Malianov, to investigate disturbances in dangerous places such as Chernobyl. I remember reading this story with great pleasure when it first appeared in Tesseracts 8 and I re-read it with the same fun here. A loose sequel featuring the same lead character, “Alexander’s Road”, appears for the first time in this collection. It’s a fine and exciting story, and we can only rejoice when Schroeder promises that there will be more stories in this series.

Five of the stories (including “Halo”, set in the same universe as Permanence) take place in extraterrestrial settings and show Schroeder to be a skilled inheritor of the classic hard-SF story in the Clarke or the Niven mold. Schroeder’s prose is far more refined than his predecessors, though not quite as limpid as it should be. Hard-SF fans will recognize those stories as the pure-SF meat of the book, and rightfully delight in seeing all of them brought together.

Three stories are set on Earth in near-contemporary times and carry a decidedly more fantastic edge. “Hopscotch” looks at supernatural phenomenons with a sceptical eye, but ends on a conclusion that may not be entirely rational. “Allegiances” takes a fantastic premise and treats it with both rigour and meanness. “Making Ghosts” is halfway between cyberpunk and horror, with a mournful tone

All short story collections manage to give a good idea of the author’s pet obsessions, and The Engine of Recall is no different. In the introduction to “Alexander’s Road”, Schroeder maintains that his stories all revolve around the theme of the inaccessible place. Reading them, I was struck by the fact that most of Schroeder’s characters are true and unashamed loners. (Stephen Baxter alludes to the same thing in his laudatory introduction.) They seldom work well with others and they love to find places where they can be alone. Perhaps fittingly for a genre optimized for intellectuals, Schroeder’s stories are often inner mind games set against the universe: the measure of success resize in figuring out how to win, even if “winning” means “getting away from everyone else.”

In the case of Schoeder’s fans, however, “winning” means “seeing this book in print.” Schroeder’s novels have deservedly attracted a good amount of praise and attention, and so this short story collection lives up to those expectations. It’s not often that I have to praise an author for editorial work, but Robert J. Sawyer has done some good in publishing this collection. Hopefully, there will be more of them.

Permanence, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2002, 447 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30371-X

Finding a good book is great, but finding a new author is even better. It’s not as if I’ve never raved about Karl Schroeder before (you can find reviews of his previous work elsewhere on this site), but with his second solo novel, Permanence, he proves that his first novel, Ventus, wasn’t a fluke and that he’s worthy of being on my list of authors to buy in hardcover.

And that, constant reader, takes some serious talent. For hard-SF geeks like me, to-buy authors must demonstrate that they play the game as well as the best: They have to include a lot of new ideas, cool concepts and a vigorous story to back it all up. (Well, okay: I admit that I can do without a story if the ideas are cool enough.)

Fortunately, Schroeder is already a dependable professional in his second outing. He co-wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing SF, after all. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to delivering a polished commercial SF product.

The opening of Permanence itself is a model in how to introduce a brand-new universe: Modeled on teen adventure SF novels (as a teenage girl escapes an abusive family situation by taking over a spaceship and fleeing to another solar system), it allows us to peek at this new world through the viewpoint of a character that knows just enough to guide us while still having a lot of room to marvel at the cool stuff.

And there’s a heck of a lot of new stuff to behold. Schroeder has taken a look at the latest astronomic discoveries, which suggest a large number of brown dwarves star scattered across the cosmos, and built a brand-new future that takes advantage of this new knowledge. Here, humanity is divided between the “lit” worlds around stars, linked together through FLT travel, and “halo” world around the brown dwarves, struggling along through regular Slower-than-light cargo trips. The differences run deeper, mind you; the “lit” worlds are pretty much all members of the “Rights Economy”, a form of capitalism gone mad where every object and service has been nano-tagged and requires micro-payment. The implications of this economic structure are vertiginous and it’s one of the book’s flaws that we never get a better look at it.

To this concept, Schroeder deftly adds evolutionary biology speculations, bigger-than-life engineering, ice worlds and tons of other cool stuff. The plot revolves around an intellectual debate raging in Permanence‘s future; is it possible for an intelligent civilisation to survive indefinitely? Are there built-in limits to sentience?

A cast of characters struggle for control of an alien space-ship that may settle the question. Smirking villains just want ultra-capitalism to triumph while our heroes try to pierce the secrets presented to them. It takes place over years, several planets and plenty of action.

There are flaws to Permanence and they’re the ones most common to large-scale adventure novels. Some characters are unceremoniously removed (or forgotten) from the narrative. Not all adventures are equally interesting. Some parts, mostly towards the end, drag a bit. The motivations of the antagonists aren’t terribly convincing.

But cool ideas go a long way in compensating for other deficiencies. Add Permanence to Ventus and I feel as if I’ve discovered another must-read Hard-SF author. From the density of ideas and the narrative control exhibited both of his novels, it certainly looks as if Schroeder can fit in with the other members of that list.

Ventus, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2000, 662 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57635-7

Some human endeavours are harder than others. While no one will ever confuse writing a novel with performing brain surgery, writing a mathematic Ph.D. thesis or even raising a child, no one will ever say that writing a good professional novel is easy. You have to balance narrative exposition with careful character development, dramatic tension and basic writing abilities. Analyse any random 600-pages novel and you’ll quickly find a bunch of interlocking factors in a framework so large that it’s almost a wonder to realize that people actually pull this off.

Science-fiction writers must be even more masochistic than most other novelist. To the already mind-boggling demands of novel-writing, they add the necessity to construct a wholly fictional world and present it to the reader in a seamless fashion. Oh, and explain new complex concepts to the average readers. Why would anyone willingly choose that job?

Karl Schroeder did. Ventus isn’t his first novel (he co-wrote The Claus Effect with David Nickle), but it’s certainly the one which will make the SF world stand up and take notice of his potential. It’s a massive, epic story about a planet with many secrets, spanning dozen of very different characters and a conflict with galactic repercussions.

Yet we begin this hard-SF story in a fashion that is almost identical to most fantasy trilogies. Young Jordan Mason is an apprentice on a vast estate. While the first chapter hints strongly at a SFictional tone -what with an attack by a silver mechal life form-, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything radically different between him and some medieval squire. Gunpowder has been invented, but what’s this about flying creatures attacking any higher technology?

As the story unfolds, both Mason and the reader discover that the ground beneath their feet isn’t nearly as stable -nor natural- as it may first seems. Jordan is almost kidnapped by strangers, thrust in complex political games and eventually made to realize an awesome untapped power. Before the book is through, we’ll visit a fantastically advanced Earth, be privy to scenes of devastating scope and -maybe more importantly- witness the emotional evolution of a cast of characters.

Ventus is a big, satisfying book, the kind that’s made for you, a comfy chair, plenty of hot chocolate and a long Sunday in front of a fireplace. It takes a while, more than a long while, to get going, but once it ignites, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Most notable is the changing nature of the characters; those who seems initially reliable end up as raving psychopaths and those who seems singularly inept ends up controlling everything. Then there’s the impressive feat of managing more than a dozen major characters without fumbling too much. Ventus doesn’t feel like a first novel; you’d be hard-pressed to consider it as being anything less than a great work by a professional author at the height of his powers. You’ll love the SF elements and the characters.

The science-fantasy aspect of the tale is annoying at first, but makes increasing sense as the underpinning of Ventus is explained. After that realisation, one can only be impressed at how well the tale unfolds, how the technological/scientific themes are well-exploited in order to give meaning to the story. The narrative even introduces interesting philosophical elements late in the story without undue effort. It’s also one of the smoothest blend of science and characterization to come along in recent memories.

After the impressive Ventus, it’s hard to wait until Schroeder’s next novel. Canada has produced several impressive SF writers in the past few years, but few seem to be audacious enough to turn out stories with the epic scope of Ventus. Schroeder seems, with his first solo novel, to aim for a spot aside Vernor Vinge and L.E. Modesitt Jr. If everything goes right, get ready for a memorable career.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, Cory Doctorow & Karl Schroeder

Alpha, 2000, 360 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863918-9

One of the most unlikely publishing trends of the nineties has been the Dummies’ Guide to… series of books, along with the inevitable knock-offs, such as -surprise- the Complete Idiot’s Guide to…. Using a voluntarily provocative title as a hook for a series of excellent reference works, the publishers of these two series have moved away from the obvious computer training manuals to delve into subjects we might not have expected from dummies guides.

Publishing Science-Fiction is one of those unlikely subjects. Few would be prompt to categorize idiots as a prime demographic for writing SF—though the jury is still out on Star Trek readers. Delve beyond the silly title, however, and you’ll find the best book on the market to teach, as it says, how to publish Science-Fiction.

Rising Canadian SF superstars Cory Doctorow (2000 Campbell Prize Winner) and Karl Schroeder (Ventus, The Claus Effect, etc.) have put together a step-by-step guide to writing SF where the only ingredient missing is determination. This Guide starts with an introduction to the genre, of course, then moves on to the essential mechanics and techniques of SF writing. The authors don’t try to teach how to write as much as they highlight the differences between SF and other types of literature. As could be expected from a general guide, their explanations are limpid and eminently accessible.

But the Guide doesn’t stop there. Once the stories are written, the hard part begins: they have to be sold! It’s no accident is this is a guide to publishing rather than writing SF: Doctorow and Schroeder spend more than half the book discussing how to build a professional SF-writing career, from the initial story sales to fiscal considerations whenever a significant fraction of your income comes from book royalties. While this will probably annoy any “true artist” in the crowd, very few resources actually deal with material considerations for budding authors.

Through it all, the Guide really represents a cause for minor astonishment at market forces: Given such a niche market fed by only a few hundred authors, who could have contemplated a market for a book on how to become a pro SF writer?

This being said, it’s not as if only budding writers will benefit from reading the Guide. By lucidly explaining the mechanics and distinctions of SF, Doctorow and Schroeder have also allowed the rest of us a glimpse at the hidden engines of modern Science Fiction. For instance, their discussion of SF character-building [Chapter 11] -and the embodiment of SF themes in events rather than characters-, will be enlightening to fans and critics of the field by explaining why SF works like it does. The first part of the guide, which introduces SF to the masses, is also invaluable in providing a succinct, but thorough overview of the field. Naturally, the glimpse in the dirty mechanics of the SF publishing industry will also help any avid fan to understand the market forces driving the field.

The Guide is a reference book that knows how to grow with its owner. While most will initially pay more attention to the earlier parts, the latter sections of the book -on self-promotion, awards and contracts- become more important as the writer matures in his chosen profession.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the book is a delight to read from start to finish, thanks to its efficient structure and the accessible style of the authors. Good fun, even if it doesn’t directly concern you.

In short there isn’t a lot to dislike about the Guide. While already occasionally dated barely a year after release (Please note that the accompanying web site has moved to http://www.kschroeder.com/guide/ ), most of its advice will remain effective for a long time. Check it out at the local library if it sounds interesting to you, and definitely consider buying it if you think you want to be a pro SF writer.