Charles Stross is science fiction’s latest sensation. After years of relative anonymity, he’s had two novels shortlisted for SF awards this year for best novel (in both the SF and fantasy categories) and two novellas have likewise been shortlisted for that format’s top awards. Iron Sunrise, which garnered the best-novel nomination for this year’s Hugo Awards, is the follow-up to his Singularity Sky, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Hugo for best novel.
Like its predecessor, Iron Sunrise is 21st-century space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term, space opera is SF writ large, i.e., conflict on an interstellar or intergalactic scale. A subgenre that dates back to the earliest days of SF, more recent purveyors have managed to shed (or shred) the pulp label with which such stories were saddled. Stross does so with heavy doses of cyberpunk, spies, hard SF—and even a detective story.
There is a common back story to both books. The Eschaton is an artificial intelligence that borders on godlike. While expressly disavowing deity-like status, the AI is from the future and gives a literal “or else” ultimatum should anyone attempt to violate causality—travel in time—and, hence, threaten the AI’s future existence. To diminish the possibility, in the 21st century the Eschaton relocated most of humanity from Earth to far-distant planets, leaving only sufficient means and resources to carve out a new society and existence. In doing that, though, the relocated go back a year in time for every light year from Earth. Thus, three centuries later, those societies that survived exist throughout the universe and technology have advanced to the point that faster-than-light travel exists, creating the possibility of causality violations.
While most of this unfolded in Singularity Sky, prior knowledge of that work is unnecessary for Iron Sunrise. Moreover, despite the grand scale of the back story, it truly is a back story. The Eschaton and its relocation and dislocation of humanity serves as a foundation of the story. It never, though, becomes the forefront or focus of the tale.
What is in the forefront are the human characters, all brought into play by a moment that could only be found in space opera. Someone or something exploded the sun around which the planet Moscow orbited, annihilating the planet and its 200 million inhabitants. Leading the human cast is Wednesday, an adolescent cyberpunk who lives on space station some 3.6 light years from that sun. She unknowingly discovers the secret to the destruction just prior to evacuating the station. Also in starring roles are husband and wife Martin and Rachel, who met while battling attempts to violate causality in Singularity Sky. Rachel works for the UN—now a for-profit operation—as a “Black Chamber” agent charged with, among other things, trying to prevent causality violations. Rachel is asked to investigate who’s been assassinating the remaining members of Moscow’s diplomatic corps, individuals who hold the key to a potential retaliatory attack automatically launched upon Moscow’s destruction. Then there’s Frank, a “warblogger” for the London Times looking into the destruction of Moscow and the political forces at play. Finally, there is a cadre of the ReMastered, humans whose ideology centers around destroying the Eschaton and replacing it with “the unborn god.”
Although spread across several planets and systems, Stross ultimately brings these characters together on a faster-than-light space liner that serves as a focal point of and staging ground for the ultimate resolution of the tale. That is, perhaps, the most glaring weakness of Iron Sunrise. For some reason, even though you’ve already swallowed the grand back story of the Eschaton, it becomes a bit tough to believe the key characters from several different planets in a story unfolding across light years find themselves together on the SF equivalent of a cruise ship. Similarly, the penultimate denouement is reminiscent of a movie detective bringing all the suspects together in the dining room as he announces his resolution of the mystery. Here, one of the bad guys brings everybody together and resolves much of the core story in one scene. Both approaches seem like a quick way to the ending after Stross spent so much time setting the stage and shaping the characters.
Some may also complain that the book leaves the doors wide open for Rachel and Martin to appear in another sequel. Stross does not, however, leave any loose ends in this story. More important, he has not come close to fully exploring the Eschaton or the universe it has created for humanity. It’s his willingness and ability to explore such paths while stretching the boundaries of space opera that have brought him to the forefront.