Karl Schroeder, The Sunless Countries [Library of Babel]

Jo Walton has a very nice review of Karl Schroeder’s Permanence over at Tor.com, which contains a terrific summary of what makes Schroeder great:

The problem with talking about Permanence (2002), or any of Schroeder’s work really, is that it’s too easy to get caught up in talking about the wonderful ideas and backgrounds and not pay enough attention to the characters and stories. I think Schroeder’s one of the best writers to emerge in this century, and his work seems to me to belong to this century, to be using newly discovered science and extrapolating from present technology, not just using the furniture of science fiction we’ve been familiar with for decades.

This also serves as a nice reminder that I really ought to review his latest, The Sunless Countries, which I picked up in the Dealer’s Room at Worldcon. This is the fourth book in his Virga series, set inside a planet-sized envelope of breathable air in the outer regions of the Vega system. Virga is a zero-gravity environment with a quasi-steampunk level of technology, enforced by some sort of suppression field generate by the artificial star, Candesce, at the center of the bubble. The central regions of Virga are lit by Candesce, while further out smaller fusion-powered artificial suns provide light for various nations. Still further out are the “Sunless Countries” of the title, which exist in perpetual darkness near the ice-covered skin of Virga.

At a Worldcon panel about something else, Schroeder said that he consciously modeled the first three books of Virga on classic adventure stories (of course, I’ve forgotten the titles he mentioned, other than The Count of Monte Cristo for Queen of Candesce). He said that this fourth book was a departure from that, instead taking inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not sure I would’ve noticed had I not heard that comment, but having heard it, the influence is clear.

Leal Maspeth is a historian at the university in one of the Sunless Countries of the title, and things are not going well. Her nation is being taken over by the Eternists, a religious cult whose beliefs hold that Virga has always existed in its present form, and who thus take a dim view of studying the human past of Virga. Her whole department is on the outs with the new ruling class, and plans are being made to put most of the library to the torch.

At the same time, something creepy is happening in the outer regions of Virga. Whole towns have seemingly vanished, out in the dark. The official story is that they have been taken by raiding parties of the “Winter Wraiths,” nomads and pirates who live outside known nations, and to be sure, something is making the Wraiths agitated. There are darker rumors, though, involving monsters from ancient legends, and booming voices from out of the darkness.

The story follows Leal as she attempts to negotiate life in the new totalitarian Eternist state, and these sections are creepy enough that it’s almost a relief when Lovecraftian monsters from outside the world show up. Leal is drawn into the fight to figure out what’s eating whole towns, along with the famous sun-lighter Hayden Griffin (the protagonist of the first book). Her knowledge of ancient history turns out to be critical in the end, as the menace from outside is not what anyone had thought it was.

This is a big departure in tone from the first three books, in which swashes were regularly buckled. There are some good action sequences here, but they’re more understated than in the previous books, and the focus is more on the history of Virga than the derring-do of its modern inhabitants. As always with Schroeder’s books, there are Big Ideas aplenty in the background, only some of which are explained in detail .

This isn’t quite as much fun as the previous books, but it’s still a very good read. There are a couple of loose ends here and there (there’s one scene that seems to hint at something manipulating both the Eternists and the Wraiths, but that never really goes anywhere), and I’m not sold on the “Artificial Nature” business, but it’s first-rate SF all the same.

Back in my Usenet days, there was a very vocal contingent on the sf newsgroups that would lament at length that nobody wrote books like they used to in the Good Old Days, with great ideas worked out in detail and good, fast-moving stories. Well, that’s exactly what Karl Schroeder provides on a regular basis. And, more impressively, as Jo notes, he does it in a way that isn’t just re-arranging old genre furniture. If that sounds good to you, check him out.