Thursday, 23 June 2005

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise (2005)

Edition: Orbit, 2005
Review number: 1299

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Stross' debut, Singularity Sky, even if it did suggest the kernel of some ideas about a mathematical theory of causality that I have been working on, on and off, since I read it. It had enough interest for me to pick up his next novel the Hugo-nominated Iron Sunrise, and I am glad I did. From the very first page it is clear that this is written to a far higher and more individual standard: Charles Stross has found his own voice.

The story has elements which resonate with the history of the science fiction genre and with current events. Pulp fiction space opera is full of "planet busters" and ultimate weapons; in the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, perhaps the best known example, these include pairs of planets placed so that they crash into the enemy home world, and worlds of antimatter which reduce a world to a handful of gravel. The human element is so played down that it is barely present; the destruction of evil is much more important than the human suffering of the innocent (something which is a literary parallel to the behaviour of the British and American governments in Iraq, where civilian deaths were not even counted). A similar event, the "iron sunrise" of the title, is the centrepiece of Stross' novel: a supernova induced by a "weapon of mass destruction" that destroys the planet of Moscow. Stross makes the human cost of such a war crime apparent - the short suffering and death of the inhabitants of Moscow, and the more lengthy problems faced on one of Moscow's colonies - taking a much more adult stance than the glib heroics of Smith.

The setting is the imaginary future that Stross invented for Singularity Sky, and the same agent is the central character of Iron Sunrise. Indeed, the weakest aspect of Iron Sunrise is the repetition of the exposition of the background from the earlier novel - by memory, it seems to be made up from paragraphs pasted across almost verbatim, which is not just astoundingly lazy but which fills the early chapters of Iron Sunrise with the kind of clumsy "infodump" rightly derided by detractors of the science fiction genre. There are enough good things about Stross' writing that he really could (and should) have found a more subtle way to do this (particularly since any readers of the earlier novel would know this); even an introduction describing Singularity Sky would have been better.

The infodump and super-weapons are not the only science fiction clich├ęs to appear in Iron Sunrise. There is the independent adolescent of above average intelligence, a staple of the genre since the early days of Robert Heinlein (and one of the main reasons why science fiction fandom is associated with geeky teenagers). In this case, she is named Wednesday, in what is presumably a slightly quirky nod to Charles Addams, and she is one of the refugees from the Moscovite colony already mentioned. Then there are the apparent villains, those who are suggested to be the destroyers of Moscow: the ReMastered, who bear a strong resemblance to the T'leilaxu in Frank Herbert's Dune novels, or to any other science fictional elite who control the proletariat via conditioning: puppetmasters in a lineage going back to the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. All of these, including the planetary destruction, are far better handled than the infodump, which is sufficiently poor and comes early enough in the novel to seriously impair the chances Iron Sunrise has of winning the Hugo. The nomination is in my opinion deserved - it is, after all, good enough to make me consider re-reading Singularity Sky.

No comments: