Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross

Ace, 2004, 355 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01159-4

Singularity Sky, Charles Stross’ debut novel, was immediately acclaimed as one of the best SF books of 2003 and went on to earn a spot on the Best Novel Hugo Awards nominee list. Its sequel, Iron Sunrise, is even better. Reprising some of the same characters in a different adventure set in the Eschaton universe inaugurated by Singularity Sky, it expands the scope of the series and also shows Stross’ progress as a novelist.

It starts with a bang, of course, as a sun is detonated in spectacular technical detail. New Moscow has just died, taking along with it billions of people and destroying an entire culture. Who’s to blame for the star-killer? UN investigator Rachel Mansour (co-star of Singularity Sky) is assigned to the case after a messy interlude defusing a nuclear bomb in suburban Geneva. Things quickly get worse when it’s revealed that New Moscow’s destruction has triggered a doomsday device aimed at another star system. As the race against the clock begins to save an entire planet, events spin out of control when the Nazi-like reMastered faction steps onto the stage… and that’s not even saying anything about Wednesday Shadowmist, an exiled teenage girl with a very unusual education who comes to play a big part in the subsequent events.

There is a lot to like about Iron Sunrise, and perhaps the best thing about it is how it shows Stross’ increasing control over his material. While Singularity Sky told a rather simple story with a lot of padding, Iron Sunrise goes for a more complicated plot and a tighter focus on what’s really important. Rachel Mansour herself is almost a supporting character, what with Wednesday constantly stealing the show. The threat of the reMastered has big repercussions outside the immediate events of the story, and the feeling of the novel is more vertiginous than its prequel.

A lot of it has to do with the expanded scope of the Eschaton universe as used by Stross, which takes on new shapes and shades. This imagined future is profoundly upsetting, in a way, as it resets the clock on human history and reignites ethnic conflicts on dozens of world without much in a way of impartial mediation. For a writer quickly being known for light-hearted storytelling, Iron Sunrise proves to be surprisingly mean and effective at times: Times of London blogger Frank the Nose’s recollections of Newpeace, for instance, is awful, disturbing and one of the best thing Stross has ever written.

Sometimes, though, Stross’ quirky sense of humour can get the better of him: I’m worried that the book will age prematurely, what with blogs and slashdotting being bandied about casually in this far-future setting (heck, Iron Sunrise even has a chapter called “Someone set us up the bomb”. Top that!) His energy is contagious, and his gift for putting characters in bizarre situations is getting better. (The sequence in which the characters have to plot inside a panopticon is definitely ingenious.)

Fortunately, Iron Sunrise keeps moving at a steadier pace than Singularity Sky. The slingshot ending alone is a piece of work, kicking the novel in high gear just as you thought everything was winding down. Alas, Stross confirms on Usenet that he’s grown doubtful about the Eschaton universe and has no immediate plans to return to it. Too bad, but then again we’ve got more than enough to satisfy us with those first two volumes.

As of this writing, Iron Sunrise looks like a leading contender for the Hugo Awards, helped along with Stross’ physical proximity to Glasgow in time for the 2005 Worldcon. Best of luck to him; the book certainly deserves consideration. It’s a fine piece of modern SF by a rising star of the genre, one who can be counted upon to deliver the good like a true professional.

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