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.

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