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.]

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