There are many facets to science fiction’s appeal to its readers. Arguably, the strongest and most traditional is that of world-building; the ability to craft a fictional reality that is not only detailed, original and consistent in its own logic (or lack thereof), but also draws the reader in to the story by arousing the same emotions that excellent travel writing triggers – the urge to be there, to see the sights, meet the characters, witness the events, smell the gun-smoke. This is the aspect of sf that contributes most strongly to that nebulous quality, the ‘sense of wonder’. As Sun of Suns demonstrates, Karl Schroeder knows how to world-build. And then some.
Sun of Suns is set in the world of Virga. But don’t let the word ‘world’ deceive you – Virga is not a planet. It is a huge hollow sphere, thousands of miles in diameter. The sphere is lit by Candesce, the eponymous ‘sun of suns’ that sits at the centre of the world, and by many more smaller suns, each acting as the centre of a slew of migratory nations and communities of humans that follow assorted orbits through the world.
Some of these nations are vast and powerful, resource-rich and decadent, dripping in steampunk technologies that allow transportation through Virga’s atmosphere and the provision of its most precious commodity – gravity, from centrifugal force. Other nations are smaller, grabbing what light and heat they can from the edge of their more powerful neighbours, clinging to the edges of civilisation as their only escape from Winter – the bitter cold and dark of the empty spaces that make up the majority of Virga’s incorporeal real estate.
Haydn Griffin is an orphan and former citizen of Aerie, one such little nation that was subsumed by the regional superpower of Slipsteam. His parents were killed and his home village destroyed by the Slipstream Navy, in retribution for his parents attempting to create their own sun to gain Aerie’s independence. One of few scattered survivors, Haydn has nursed his resentment through long harsh years on the edge of Winter. Now he has managed to infiltrate the household of Slipstream’s Admiral, the man he believes to be responsible for the destruction of everything he held dear, and is days away from exacting his final revenge.
Before he can take out his nemesis in a blaze of self-indulgent glory, however, his disguise as a servant and his skills as a rocket-bike rider traps him in the last place he expected (or wanted) to be – on the Slipstream Navy flagship, acting as manservant to the Admiral’s paranoid scheming wife as the fleet sets sail into distant territories on a mysterious and clandestine mission.
On this odyssey, he and the other crew encounter trade-towns hidden in vast bubbles of water, rogue pirate fleets, an enclave of tourists from the universe beyond Virga, sprawling decadent nations teeming with intrigue and baroque zero-gee architecture that would give Escher nightmares, ‘sargassos’ of dead forest, lost treasure troves, ancient technology … and a whole lot of problems.
World-building alone is not enough, of course, but Sun of Suns has a Maguffin-quest adventure to match the scenery. Haydn’s journey is full of conflicts, large and small: at the large scale, there are pitched battles between the Slipstream fleet and various opposing vessels; at the small scale, there are interpersonal rivalries with other crew-members to contend with.
But by far the greatest enemy that Haydn has to defeat is himself – the resentful core of hatred and lust for revenge that threatens to destroy him and others he cares about. He has to overcome his blinkered thinking, step into the shoes of people he despises, and eventually come to accept that nothing is ever black and white:
“Somehow … there must be a way to separate the political from the personal. His bitterness over the past years seemed increasingly to have come from not believing such a thing was possible.” [pp 231]
It is this that makes Sun of Suns a truly satisfying novel – it is a rare thing to find a novel with the trappings of high swashbuckling adventure which also has a believably flawed lead who still inspires sympathy in the reader. To find one that is also set in a stunning and unique environment is nothing short of exceptional.
While he’s dazzling the reader with a cinematic experience, Schroeder is busy saying things behind the curtain that look at the real world beyond the pages. The complex politics of the nations of Virga, based on the changing borders of overlapping territories and the economics of scarce resources, is eerily reminiscent of our own fractious civilisation.
Schroeder’s characters also go the extra mile beyond reading their lines and treading the boards. They’re all a little larger than life, but they have a rare quality for in science fictional personas in that they all seem to be thinking beyond the end of the next scene, if not the entire book; they are actively engaged with their own personal futures, fumbling ahead in the darkness to feel out their fates, rather than waiting passively for circumstance to deal them the next hand.
The end result is a layered story that is a lot more intelligent than it might initially appear. The exotic spectacle of Virga and the high drama of the plot makes for a highly engaging novel – one that could well appeal to that notoriously vague (but allegedly lucrative) ‘young adult’ market that thrives on pace, loud explosions and the ‘wow!’ factor – but they also allow some big ideas of a distinctly less fictional nature slip under the radar, and that’s a synthesis that a genre frequently labelled as stuffy and geekish could do with a lot more of.