Sunday, April 12, 2009

Recent Reading: Iron Sunrise

by Charles Stross

Having finally got around to reading Charles Stross's first novel, I was engaged enough to get hold of the follow-up/sequel. This turned out to represent a mildly curious sidestep on the part of the author - a slight but definite shift in tone and focus. I think that many people would regard it as an improvement and a case of stylistic maturation, but I didn't really take to it as much.

We're in the same universe as Singularity Sky, about which one or two things are indeed now explicitly clarified - for example, that the humans scooped up and transplanted from Earth by the whimsical not-God-honest Eschaton were moved one year back in time for every lightyear they were moved from home - and indeed, things start in the aftermath of that story. Or rather we would, except that we have to flash back a little. After a brief glimpse of one of the novel's heroines in action - an adolescent girl with a very useful invisible friend who we may remember from the earlier book - we are shown the Iron Sunrise of the title; the destruction of of the inhabited world of New Moscow by the explosion of its sun, accomplished by some sort of very advanced technology. (This destruction is depicted rather well, if perhaps with a bit of unintended glee.) Most sensible people in the setting seem to assume what many readers will think is logical; that this sort of apocalyptic-scale technology is more or less solely the province of the Eschaton, and hence that New Moscow must have angered not-God. We're also told, later in the book, that it involves causality violation, pretty much the one thing that the Eschaton prohibits, although how it's any more a violation of causality than many things which the Eschaton permits isn't clear to me. However, established readers will also know that the Eschaton, while capable of significant and violent destruction when it feels the need, is maybe more of a trickster than a destroyer at heart, and some characters who we like work for it; at the very least, it's not clear what New Moscow would or could have done to inspire such wrath. Stross has set up a puzzle.

Anyway, our attention now turns back to Rachel Mansour, agent of Earth's light-handed government, heroine of Singularity Sky, and sometime kickass righteous super-woman of a type rather common in recent genre fiction. (At least she's less enthusiastic about killing people she doesn't approve of than, say, many of Warren Ellis's creations.) After a brief bit of bureaucratic comedy of the sort that Stross found a better home for in the early "Laundry" stories, Rachel briefly reasserts her heroic status by dealing with an insane nuclear-armed performance artist (yes, really), and then sets off, husband-from-the-earlier-book in tow, to deal with the big plot.

As this may suggest, Iron Sunrise features one of those cross-cutting, multi-protagonist structures that do so often appear in modern genre thrillers. Given their popularity, I assume that many people must like them, but I just find them a bit tiresome. Certainly, they are associated more with thrillers than with mysteries, and this book soon proves more interested in the how and the gosh than the who or the why; the maguffin of the central plot isn't so much the knowledge of who killed New Moscow as it is access to the command codes for some relativistic deterrent weapons which were launched in the wake of new Moscow's destruction, and which will kill a lot more people if not stopped. Someone is killing the diplomats who can issue a recall... But even the identity of that killer isn't as important as sorting out the practical problem, as it seems.

The use of the multi-thread stucture here could be seen as Stross showing off how he's in command of his resources, but I think that he's lost something along the way. All the hard work fitting the thriller plot together certainly loses much of the darkly satirical humour of which Stross is certainly sometimes capable, Rachel's earliest scenes aside.

And while the multiplicity is handled fairly well, there are glitches. For example, we soon meet another of his plot's heroes, a "journalist" of another popular recent-genre-fiction type. Although he seems to embody the setting's manifestation of the London Times, he owes much more to Hunter S. Thompson than William Howard Russell; most of his "reporting" consists of furiously angry op-ed pieces in which the F-word features prominently. However, after this appearance, the character disappears for long stretch, as Stross evidently can't think of much to do with him until he's needed for a couple of specific purposes. Still, he does provide an introduction to the book's leading proximate villains, the ReMastered. These look at first like cartoon Nazis, singing patriotic songs in bars and being blond; they are soon shown to be much more serious Nazis, with a penchant for concentration camps and generally brutal dictatorship; then they are revealed to be something a more original and distinctly creepy, ruthless Nietzschean-Teilhardian posthumanists with a vicious fondness for applied ultratech neurosurgery.

And so the various characters and threads move towards each other and an eventual showdown on a big, lush interstellar liner, with some gunplay and explosions along the way. I'm not convinced by some of these elite secret agents, lethal special forces types, and high-powered journalists, though; many of them seem amazingly ignorant about things that one might expect them to have studied very carefully, and not just so that the reader can be subjected to useful info dumps, while a potentially crucial (and deeply implausible) detail of the assassinations of the diplomats simply goes ignored by everyone except the half-alert reader. Characters who should know better also seem notably sloppy about searching prisoners for concealed weapons. Still, Stross manages some fairly clever twists and turns before the story ends.

Which it does rather abruptly, leaving only one significant extra twist for the epilogue. But several of the mysteries which the book threw up despite itself remain unsolved, and the solutions which it offers for others are sometimes tentative and unconvincing. Even the Eschaton seems uncertain what's going on, even at the end. In short, Stross seems to have left a lot for a very possible sequel or two - but no such book has appeared since this one, in 2004. If he's given up on the setting, fair enough; I don't believe in whipping authors into bored sequel-grinding just to answer anyone's need for neatness. But that doesn't make this book complete. The smart ideas earn it points for effort, but the execution doesn't match the inspiration.

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