Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0441011594 PubDate: 07/01/04
Review by Sam Lubell
368 pgs. List price $ 23.95
Buy this book and support SFRevu at Amazon US / Amazon UK
For the last few years Charles Stross has been one of the field’s top short story writers. Like many other of the “new” sf writers (he’s actually been writing since 1987 but only recently gained recognition) he’s British (Scottish, to be specific). His story “Lobsters” and others in that series have won especially wide acclaim. He’s one of the few authors truly exploring the concepts of the singularity (the point at which progress has moved so fast that it is beyond today’s understanding) and man-machine transhuman evolution. And he’s brave; not only did he appropriate the title of Isaac Asimov’s most famous story, “Nightfall,” but he did so in the pages of Asimov’s own magazine. Both Singularity Sky, his first novel, and Atrocity Exhibition were very good books and the former has been nominated for the Hugo. However, neither struck me as having reached the level of his best stories. Iron Sunrise, a sequel to Singularity Sky, has. Perhaps it succeeds because it’s a more traditional and comprehensible novel. While Singularity Sky had an invasion from a post-Singularity culture, that, by definition, cannot have motives understandable to us pre-Singularity humans, Iron Sunrise does not have that problem. Fortunately, it is not necessarily to have read Singularity Sky to understand Iron Sunrise.
The book opens with a 15-year old Goth-girl named Wednesday, my favorite character in the novel, being chased on a space station that is being evacuated because it is in the path of the shockwave from a weapon that destroyed the planet Moscow. Wednesday has an invisible friend named Herman, who’s not imaginary at all but an aspect of the Eschaton, the supercomputer AI that rules the universe (or at least blocks time travel and other destructive activities) and distributed humanity throughout the universe. Herman has trained her in survival and spying throughout her life, coached as games and tricks. This comes in handy when Wednesday discovers some secret papers that could reveal the plans of a very nasty set of villains and sets in motion events that leads her to try to find the murderers of her parents and her world.
Meanwhile, in the UN-run New Republic, Rachel, a secret agent for the Black Chamber (and a major character in Singularity Sky) has to contend with a bureaucrat who wants her fired for not revealing the cause of expenditures that do not match her cover as a covert arms control inspector. She is called back to action by the destruction of Moscow and the launching of its deterrent fleet that has targeted the planet its leaders thought were the source of that planet-killing weapon. The only ones who can call the fleet off are the surviving members of the Muscovite diplomatic corps who are being murdered by some unknown party..and the killings appear to be following in the wake of the spaceship Wednesday is traveling on.
So, although the story is of Galactic scope, much of the action of the second half is confined to one ship and the planets it visits. There’s also a strong mystery element – who is killing off the ambassadors? There’s a strong, sympathetic character in Wednesday, and Rachel seems more rounded than in the previous book. Martin, another agent of Herman, has a much smaller part so it is not a problem that he’s not any better developed. There’s even good use of some humor too, as when both Martin and Rachel separately save a person by claiming she is their daughter and then have to figure out how to hide two people with one ident-tag. The villains are nicely villainous, with a plan to control the universe by replacing leaders with puppets under their control, although one can’t help but feel sorry for people from such a nasty culture.
Everything is wrapped up nicely at the end with even a subplot that seemed to have no connection to the main story ultimately tying in neatly with the bad guys’ plot and opening the door for a sequel, which I certainly would look forward to reading. It seems that Charles Stross has learned how to write novels that are the equal of his stories and I would not be at all surprised to see this one on the Hugo and Nebula ballots. I strongly recommend this book, even to people who did not like Singularity Sky.