As the ones of you who read this blog know, Charles Stross is science fiction’s most recent sensation. After years of relative anonymity, he’s been shortlisted this year for SF awards for his novels (both SF and fantasy) and novellas. Iron Sunrise, which garnered the best novel nomination for this year’s Hugo Awards, is a follow-up to Singularity Sky, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Hugo for best novel.
Like its predecessor, Iron Sunrise is 21st century space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term, space opera is SF writ large, i.e., conflict on an interstellar or intergalactic scale. A subgenre that dates back to the earliest days of SF, more recent purveyors have managed to shed the pulp image with which such stories were saddled. Stross does so with heavy doses of cyberpunk, 24th century James Bond, hard SF – and even a little detective story.
There is a common back story to both books. The Eschaton is an artificial intelligence that borders on godlike. While expressly disavowing any deity-like status, the AI exists in humanity’s future and imposes harsh measures on anyone who seeks to use technology to violate causality and, hence, threaten the AI’s existence. To hinder the possibility, in the 21st century the Eschaton relocates most of humanity from Earth to far-distant planets, leaving only the essentials for humans to carve out a new society and existence. Thanks to wrinkles in the space-time continuum, each light year in distance also meant going back a year in time. Thus, some three centuries later, mankind has blossomed throughout the universe, bringing with it inventions such as faster-than-light travel, something which can directly threaten causality.
While most of this unfolded in Singularity Sky, knowledge of that story is not a prerequisite to Iron Sunrise. Moreover, despite the grand scale of the back story, it truly is a back story. The Eschaton and the relocation of humanity is a foundation of this story. Yet it never becomes the forefront or focus of the tale.
What is in the forefront here are the human characters, all brought into play by an almost quintessential space opera moment. Someone or something exploded the sun around which the planet Moscow orbited, annihilating it and its 200 million inhabitants. In a leading role in this opera is Wednesday, a 24th century adolescent cyberpunk who lives on a space station some 3.6 light years from Moscow’s sun. In the process of evacuating the station, she unknowingly discovers the secret to the destruction. Also in starring roles are husband and wife Martin and Rachel, both also prominent in Singularity Sky. Rachel works for the UN and is “Black Chamber” agent charged with, among other things, trying to prevent causality violations. She is asked to investigate who’s been assassinating the remaining members of Moscow’s diplomatic corps, individuals who hold the key to a potential long-term retaliatory strike automatically launched upon Moscow’s destruction. Then there’s Frank, a “warblogger” for the London Times looking into the destruction of Moscow and the political forces at play. Finally, there is a cadre of the ReMastered, humans whose ideology centers around destroying the Eschaton and replacing it with “the unborn god.”
Although initially spread across several planets and systems, Stross ultimately brings all these characters together on a faster-than-light space liner that serves as a focal point of and staging ground for the ultimate resolution of the tale. That is, perhaps, the most glaring weakness of Iron Sunrise. While the whole story is based on a reader accepting the Eschaton and the exploding sun, for some reason it is a bit tough to believe the key characters from several different planets in a story unfolding across light years find themselves together on the SF equivalent of a cruise ship. Similarly, the penultimate denouement is reminiscent of a murder mystery where all the players are brought together in the dining room as the detective announces his resolution of the mystery. Here, one of the bad guys brings everybody together and ties up a variety of loose ends in one scene. Both approaches feel like a quick way out after Stross spent so much time setting the stage and shaping the characters.
Finally, some might complain because the close of the book leaves the doors wide open for another sequel with Rachel and Martin. Stross does not, however, leave any loose ends in this story itself. More important, he has not come close to fully exploring the Eschaton or the universe it has created for humanity. His willingness and ability to explore such paths have brought him where he is today.
The truth hurts, but not as much as the consequence of willful ignorance.
Charles Stross, Iron Sunrise