Also by Karl Schroeder Ventus (see our Dec 2000 Review)
Karl Schroeder's back with a new deep space novel set in the reasonably far future, and he's back with another winner. His first book, Ventus, was good enough for me to worry that he couldn't do it twice, but Permanence shows that he's here to stay, and getting better every time.
In between the stars, contemporary astronomers have discovered in the past few years, lie dim stars with planets of their own. This discovery, says Karl, means that an extra solar culture could spring up, and he sets out to show us a richly developed universe full of ideas and conflicts.
These "Halo" worlds between bright stars have been abandoned by the luminal worlds and are falling into stagnation and decay, though they once had a thriving economy and trade based on a system of "cyclers", slower than light starships that made regular rings through a collection of worlds. Cycler Captains are revered, and a semi religious Order of Permanence exists to support the network of cyclers, and provide for the continuity of human civilization over the millennia.
Things were going pretty well until the luminal worlds discovered FTL drives, and here Karl has come up with an idea that I've often thought would make sense. In much SF, you can't start an FTL drive until you're sufficiently far enough away from a star or planet for its mass to interfere. Karl says they have it backwards. You can't start an FTL drive unless you have a supermass nearby. Oh, you can pop out of hyperspace anywhere you like, but if there's no big star in the area you have to slowboat home.
Rue Cassells grew up on a station colony in a dim star system, grew up to become a threat to her brother, who shared the inheritance of rights to control of the station, but who shared none of the power. The only thing Rue was left for herself was a pendant, with a billion year old fossil in it, a keepsake from Earth. Though her brother had stolen it, it was the most precious thing in her universe, and after taking it back she left the station, the only world she'd ever known to survive on her own. She makes a daring escape from the station in a shuttle and strikes out on her own towards the nearest Halo world.
On her way, the shuttle's sensors sight a mass traveling in from an unusual direction. Rue can hardly believe her luck, to sight and lay claim to an asteroid, to arrive at the Halo world of Erythrion wealthy rather than desperate. But her luck is not what it seems, and the object turns out to be a Cycler coming into the system from an unexpected direction.
Up and down the rollercoaster of fame and fortune, Rue travels...more than once, as the object turns from rock, to ship, to derelict, to alien starship.
Cycler law says that if Rue can board the ship and show that she can steer it, that she can claim it for herself, that she can become a cycler captain and owner. The presence of an alien cycler holds such portent thought that little will stop the governments of worlds to take it over for themselves, and with a hastily assembled crew Rue has to prove her claim to the ship.
Though Rue starts out as a refugee on her own, as soon as she accepts the challenge of trying to capture the starship she takes on responsibility for a crew, and as she does it transforms her.
Rue belongs to the Halo worlds, and if there's any way she can use the alien technology to bring them back to life, she's determined to find it. Just as determined as the military expedition from the luminal worlds is to turn it into a weapon that they can use to stop the splintering of human space and create a monolithic empire.
Schroeder has created a terrific ensemble cast to go with her. A manic-depressive cousin, a budding journalist, a resourceful female doctor, a member of the cycler cult and a former cycler crewman. The characters are everything one needs to keep the story moving as the author unfolds greater themes and issues before us.
Besides Rue and her band, and the military expedition that comes along to "help" them explore the ship, there is a scientific team headed by Dr. Herat, the leading scientist in alien archeology and Michael Bequith, his assistant, a quiet, methodical man who leads a double life, scientist on the one hand, practitioner of a banned religion, neo-shintoism, on the other. Michael has traveled to many strange worlds with Herat, and everywhere he goes he uses his AI enhanced brain to find the "Kami", or spirit of a place. The last world they studied together left him numbed and lost against the spectre of countless millenia yet to unfold, and his quest for a way to reconnect to his spirituality provides yet another dimension to the story.
What will it take to keep civilization alive? Will we meet alien empires or factious and independent societies? Can man and alien form an alliance, or will we be too different to even speak? Certainly these are classic themes within SF, but Karl Schroeder approaches these themes with a fresh voice and a thoughtful perspective.
His science is also refreshingly solid. Laser accelerated light sails catch up with the relativist velocity cyclers, the physics of his FTL is well thought out, and the mechanics of living in space, from life support to EVA are given due consideration.
Locus Magazine compared Karl Schroeder to Vernor Vinge, and it's a good call on their part. He does have Vinge's imagination and scale, but in addition he brings a wealth of new ideas to the field.
His first novel, Ventus, was excellent, Permanence as good or better, while tackling a whole new area. I'm really looking forward to what he comes up with next.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu sa 05.22.02