Friday, November 10, 2023

Bronze Sunset

I think my mind must be slipping. I've been reading "Iron Sunrise", a hard sci-fi novel from Charles Stross. It's the sequel to Singularity Sky, which I knew I'd read previously but couldn't remember when. I just checked my blog and saw that I read it, um, just about four months ago! It feels like a lot longer.


I've now enjoyed reading quite a few of Stross's series. While they've all been sci-fi, they've explored very different flavors of the genre. These two novels form what's apparently called the Eschaton series, and are the most science-based books of his I've read: he grapples really deeply with the implications of faster-than-light travel, how that impacts causality and time travel and such. He also looks at how those technologies impact civilizations, society and culture, but the science is the key to it. (Unlike, say, the Merchant Princes series, where the main impetus seems to be exploring a social/economic framework, with the science a convenient excuse to do so.)


Iron Sunrise starts with a literal bang: a man-made nova, destroying a star by means of temporal manipulation, essentially accelerating the passage of time of the star's core, fast-forwarding it a few billion years until it has collapsed into iron, then snapping it back into the "present" and unleashing incredible destruction over the entire bounds of a solar system. It's an awe-inspiring bit of prose that makes the stakes feel incredibly high.

This is set in the same universe as "Singularity Sky", and also shares some of the main characters, particularly Rachel Mansour and her now-husband Martin. The action takes place in different places, though: from the destroyed system (confusingly named "Moscow", apparently named after the Idaho city rather than the Russian capital) to Earth to several other planets, stations and large starships. And other than Rachel and Martin there's a large cast of new characters. For better and worse, they are unevenly represented in point-of-view: some just pop up for a chapter or two, while others end up driving most of the narrative.

The main character is probably Wednesday, who seems to be inspired by Wednesday Adams: she's a very Gothy teenage girl, always dressed in black and often sulking. Her family are refugees from the Moscow system: they lived on a station outside the Oort cloud equivalent, and so had time to evacuate before the blast wave reached them. She's also in contact with "Herman", a component of the cluster of intelligences and agents that make up the Eschaton, the totally-not-a-god entity who touched off the singularity and has shaped the fate of humanity.


The pacing in this novel feels a bit uneven, with a ton of setup and backstory and musings for the first 7/8 or so and then a ton of action crammed in at the end. It's all very readable and fun, though.

The main villains are, unsurprisingly, the ReMastered. From the beginning they have strong Nazi overtones, with Stross calling out their blond hair and blue eyes. He's pretty vague about what their whole deal is for much of the book, but you can piece it together and infer a lot, so much of the big reveals near the end feel more like the characters catching up than us being surprised.

It's interesting to think that this book was published in 2004, likely written during 2003, during the height of the rush to the Iraq War. I don't think this book is directly commenting on that, but when Stross notes how the ReMastered used the threat of security and terrorism to whip local populaces into a panic and use that fear to install their own leaders and carry out their agenda... well, I don't think that storytelling is happening in a vacuum. Of course there are the straightforward analogies to the Reichstag Fire besides the more sideways links to yellowcake.

The plot gets pretty messy and complicated near the end, but I actually really liked that. As Herman warns, there isn't just one group of "good guys" and one of "bad guys", but multiple sub-factions, with the same group often at odds with itself. That feels a lot more real to life than most books; I mean, just look at how frequent turf wars between bureaucracies in the US play out. I appreciated how the characters in the book would share the reader's confusion, with their assumptions of who was responsible for what and to what end being upended, and subsequently questioning the rightness of a course of action.

Some of the "twists" in the book are incredibly choreographed: it's pretty obvious that Svengali the clown is an assassin long before it's officially revealed. Others did catch me by surprise, especially Steffi's role in the action: it is a neat trick to use a character's POV but elide some topics.


Ordinarily this is where I would write "I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series", but in this case, there are no other books. Apparently Stross has found irresolvable problems with how he's set up this particular universe and won't be returning to it. I'm not surprised about the trouble - causality is such a delicate idea both in reality and in fiction, and while it's ballsy to play with it (even within constraints) like Stross does, doing so seems especially fraught. Especially in a hard-science-fiction context like this, where you can't just hand-wave away problems and attribute them to midichlorians or The Weave.  I am a little sad we won't get more, especially since (unlike the first book) this one ends by strongly setting up the next course of action. Still, I hugely respect that decision, and hey, there's still plenty more Stross for me to read!

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