Charles Stross created a fascinating future in his first novel, Singularity Sky. His second foray into that universe is entertaining, but it lacks the inventiveness and originality of its predecessor.
A weapon, moving at 80% the speed of light, was launched years ago during a conflict between earth colonies, and several people seek the recall code. The plot expands to envelop a teenage girl who knows too much, a news blogger, characters from Stross’s previous novel-- and Space NazisTM.
Certain early scenes— Terran agent Rachel Mansour defusing a bomb threat, teenage misfit Wednesday encountering serious troubles on her way to a party—- show Stross at his best, imposing speculative technology onto dramatic situations and developing the results, without losing his sense of humor and satire. The characters, the settings, the tone and mood all work together here, and the book really engaged me. Some people will object to some of the situations (strong female characters, arguably, exploitatively handled in places), but the events make sense in context.
Wednesday once made a discovery while exploring her space station home and, in doing so, discovered something of value to the ReMastered, a Nazi-like sect spreading through the human colonies. She proves resourceful, however, and she has a special edge; she hears voices, and they are real. They belong to an agent of the Eschaton, a product of post-humanity which has come from the future to ensure its own existence. The ReMastered have a long-term plan, and it is one that poses a threat to the Eschaton.
Stross takes a convention of old Space Opera—- Space Nazis-—and a feature of contemporary SF—consciousness downloading—and combines them into something interesting. He does little with the results in this book, but it bodes well for the next one. Cliché origins aside, the ReMastered have the potential to be worthy villains in the Eschaton universe.
The plot that develops will likely keep readers interested for most of the book’s chapters, and Stross also generates a few laughs along the way. His sense of humor runs from political satire to fannish in-jokes; he entitles one chapter, "Set Up Us the Bomb." He can be quite astute, as when Rachel Mansour draws on her knowledge of the past, and her understanding of the twentieth century proves about as accurate as the average person’s today is of, say, the Renaissance:
Rachel leaned back against the wall. The designers had tricked out the promenade deck in a self conscious parody of the age of steam. From the holystoned oak planting of the floor to the retro-Victorian of the furniture, it could have been a slice out of some nuclear-powered liner from the distant, planet-bound past, a snapshot of the Titanic, perhaps, a time populated by women in bonnets and ballooning skirts, men in backward baseball caps and plus-fours, zeppelins and jumbos circling overhead. But it wasn’t big enough to be convincing, and instead of a view across the sea, there was just a screen the size of a wall and her husband wearing a utility kilt with pockets stuffed with gadgets he never went anywhere without. (130)
Unfortunately, the book lags in the second half, and Stross doesn’t provide nearly enough novelty to keep us from noticing. Many elements feel too well-worn, without the reinventiveness found in some of Stross’s other writing. At times, Iron Sunrise feels as though it were assembled from disparate parts. Wednesday has her roots in cyberpunk; she feels like a Stephenson or a Gibson girl. The space opera conventions he had so much fun with in Singularity Sky largely function as conventions here.
Singularity Sky used the conventions of Space Opera, but reinvented them to suit the realities of technology undreamt of in the genre’s younger days, with playful and satiric results. In this book, Stross walks a fine line between satirizing and simply using clichés, and, in the second-last chapter (or the last, if you don’t consider an epilogue a "chapter"), he falls off it in the wrong direction.
That final chapter features clichés in the writing and in the turn of events, and not even occasional nods to parody save it. When the villain explains everything to the captive heroes, Stross finds a way to have the scene make some kind of sense, but I still felt like I had entered Austin Powers territory, while still being asked to care about the characters. And one character, who unsurprisingly turns out to be something other than we thought, approaches cartoon supervillainy before being defeated.
Stross can write very well, and this book contains some excellent passages. At times, however, Iron Sunrise appears to have been rushed. Even with the shift of the third person "limited omniscient" narrator from character to character, there’s no need to repeat things the reader already knows, unless we’re going to learn something new about those things or about the character by that repetition. In the end, I suspect Stross and his editor needed more time, but the market demanded he publish.
In the wake of Singularity Sky’s success with critics and fans, it seems (I'm speculating, of course) that Stross wants to demonstrate the commercial viability of his name and his Eschaton Universe. I don’t blame him; he’s a promising writer who obviously wants to continue making a living. And, in fact, he wrote in record time a (generally) fast-paced, Space Opera/thriller which maintains the integrity of Singularity Sky's universe, while appealing to a broader audience. I applaud his ability, and I will likely read the inevitable sequel(s).
Stross’s earlier writing, however, prepared me for something more than this, and I felt a bit disappointed. Iron Sunrise will entertain many readers with its mix of SF, thriller, and humor, but it falls short of Stross’s best short stories, and it doesn’t live up to the expectations created by Singularity Sky.
A variation of this review first appeared at Bureau42.