Tags: Karl Schroeder
There have been many responses written to Paul Kincaid’s exhaustion article, but I cannot help but feel that out of all of them Sun of Suns may be the most decisive. Mind you, it was written in 2006, but I read it for the first time recently and can’t help viewing the book in light of the recent discussions. Different people have taken Kincaid’s essay in very different directions, but the original assertion was that (in “best of the year”-anthologized short stories, at least) science fiction authors have lost confidence, conviction, passion, and even their identity as members of a genre distinct from, or at least within, the broad sweep of fantastic literature.
Sun of Suns is full to bursting with all these things. The first in a four book series, it introduces the setting of Virga, a planet-sized enclosure filled with air, water vapor, and floating rocks. The implications of this for its human inhabitants are complex. Light is provided by artificial fusion reactor “suns”, but even the brightest of these generates many orders of magnitude less light and heat than a genuine star. Distance from a sun or even the shadow cast by a city can render a volume of air too cold and dark to inhabit. Gravity must be created through artificial means as well, since with most people not living near the edges, Virga can’t be approximated as a point mass. To get close to the Earth-gravity to which the human body is adapted, Virga’s people must spin their houses, their ships, their villages, and their cities. It is clear that Schroeder has put an enormous amount of thought into how all this would work, and the result is a setting that has more sense of wonder than anything I’ve read in years. As the story progresses the reader is treated to cities of countless linked wheels, three-dimensional “lakes” of globular water, and floating icebergs that fall off the frozen edge of the world and plunge inward toward the core. It is impossible to imagine the author relating these details with anything other than a big smile on his face, and it’s a smile that I think most people with an interest in science fiction will find infectious. I can’t speak for the whole genre, naturally, but I can’t recall ever encountering a setting that felt so new and yet so confidently realized. I’m usually an energetic nitpicker, but I found nothing that in any way shook my belief. I’m not a physicist, so I can’t tell you whether it all is worked out perfectly, but boy does it ever feel like it’s been worked out perfectly.
Sun of Suns strikes me, therefore, like an exemplar of the sort of thing Kincaid is asking for in science fiction. It’s true that Virga is convincing as an object without there being a plausible route by which humanity would come to build such a thing, and if we must label Schroeder, we should probably label him a Singularity author. The society within Virga is deliberately constrained to a pre-Singularity state, a sort of Bizarro version of Vinge’s Slow Zone, but the greater universe outside appears to be populated by a mix of Vingean transcended intelligence and Iain M. Banks decadent humans. The fact I’m invoking other authors here may make it seem like I’m backing away from my assertions of novelty, but the outside is not visited in this novel, only hinted at, with the understanding that genre readers will fill in the blanks until more is learned later in the series. This is, to my mind, an appropriate use of genre tropes. The other Schroeder novel I’ve read, Lady of Mazes, was a very impressive rendering of a far future society, so I think if he does take the story outside Virga the setting will still be in good hands. In any case, despite the association with the Singularity, what Kincaid dislikes about Singularity fiction isn’t present. The comprehensibility of the world is not rejected, nor is there a resort to the language of fantasy or theology. The part of the universe in focus in Sun of Suns is fully rendered.
But if Sun of Suns is an exemplar of Kincaid’s aesthetic, it’s also a criticism of it, because while the setting is fantastic, the same can’t be said for the story. Right from the beginning I took a strong dislike to the protagonist, Hayden Griffin. Griffin is orphaned at the beginning of the book when the navy of the oppressive Slipstream attacks and destroys the sun being built by Griffin’s parents. Had it been completed, the sun would have given Griffin’s home community Aerie its own source of light and freed it from dependence on Slipstream, but instead Aerie is incorporated into Slipstream’s growing empire. Intent on revenge against the admiral who led the attack, Griffin becomes a servant in the admiral’s household and waits for an opportunity to murder him. In another story he might do so and earn some sort of freedom for his homeland, but almost from the very beginning it is clear this isn’t that sort of story. Instead, it’s the sort of story in which the world and people in it are painted in shades of gray. That’s all to the good…except Griffin is so naive he takes nearly half the novel to even begin to realize this. In some other respects Griffin is your typical protagonist “nice guy” but ultimately he’s not very bright, not particularly good at anything, and however tragic his backstory, it spurs him to pursue an idiotic revenge for much of the novel and then ceases having any effect on him.
The story’s other thread concerns Admiral Fanning, the man Griffin considers responsible for the deaths of his parents, and his scheming wife Venera, who has somehow constructed a personal intelligence network and stumbled on a foreign plot to destroy Slipstream. Admiral Fanning turns out to be a generic good guy who happens to work for a morally suspect regime. His wife is an incarnation of Lady Macbeth, unethical and ambitious, but her efforts to save Slipstream drive the story nearly from beginning to end. All right, but why should I care about Slipstream? Griffin’s “Aerie good, Slipstream bad” ideology is eventually portrayed as the product of naivete, but in fact no defense of Slipstream is even attempted. I can only assume this was an effort at Martin-style political realism on Schroeder’s part, but unlike in Martin’s fantasy the characters here aren’t compelling enough for me to care about the political order just because the characters care about it, nor is there the idea that a good guy needs to seize the reins to end the anarchy-fueled humanitarian disaster. Also unlike Martin, as the story progresses the politics fade further and further into the background as even Griffin decides he’d rather his homeland be ruled by the devil he knows than the devil he doesn’t.
The second half of the story has some well-executed set piece battles for Admiral Fanning’s fleet to fight and lots of exploration of the wonderful Virga setting, but I found less and less reason to care about what was going on. Griffin’s sudden romance with that most exhausted of science fiction tropes, the smart beautiful exotic savvy woman inexplicably attracted to the protagonist who is none of those things, was the final straw for me. I finished the novel sure I was done with the series, though the process of writing this review has seen my conviction waver. Well, I’m thinking, the second book is in the same amazing setting and but it’s a different story with mostly different characters. And I did like Lady of Mazes. Maybe it’s worth another go.
Maybe. But Sun of Suns is a reminder that while we’d all love it if every science fiction book was full of startling new vistas, for a novel to be successful it still needs decent prose, characterization, and an interesting plot. The author’s conviction in their invented future isn’t sufficient, and ultimately I’m not sure I agree it’s even necessary. If I have to choose between a novel with good fundamentals and one exercising the unique virtues of science fiction, I’d rather read something with the former. In his essay Kincaid was talking about short stories, and at the short story length, I consider what I’ve described as the fundamentals to be less important (relatively) than the story’s ideas. Well-written short stories that don’t really amount to anything are a dime a dozen, and at the short length there’s no room for depth in characters or plot, which means that a compelling idea (or three) can plausibly be said to be the mark of a great short story. Having to put up with characters I don’t care about for 300 pages instead of 10 completely changes the equation. Sun of Suns doesn’t refute Kincaid, but it’s a warning against applying his argument to long form fiction.