Sun of Suns

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Karl Schroeder

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2007-05-03

Publisher: Tor Books

Maybe I'm just too picky. Of course, maybe that's why I'm writing
book reviews, because somebody who just said "It's all good, man"
wouldn't give much guidance. But I'll admit I'm awfully picky. And
the authors who get the worst brunt of my pickiness are not the bad
authors, but the good ones.

Like Mr. Schroeder. He's basically a good author, and in "Sun of
Suns" he's working with an absolutely marvellous world, a balloon of
air the size of a planet, named Virga and inhabited by all manner of
warring civilizations. Even the weird anachronistic mix of technology
that we see---like fusion reactors but no computers---turns out to
make sense in his world. There is a magical similarity between the
sort of navigation done in his world and Napoleonic seafaring, which
lets him write the sort of romantic adventure novel that he wants to.

The physics is all nicely worked out too: the way gravity is a
precious resource, the way water globs and plants blossom, the way
that air interacts with the fusion "suns" to make regions of cloud
known as "winter." It reminded me very much of Niven's "Integral
Trees" and "Smoke Ring," which also involve a semi-primitive zero-G

So why did I end the book with a bad taste in my mouth? I certainly
didn't start that way, and I spent half the book just devouring it.
But Mr. Schroeder's not quite up to handling the mix of plot elements
he's working with. It's not any one instant, but an accumulation of
jarring bits and pieces, as the narrative compulsion of an adventure
novel struggles with the cold eyes of hard SF. Like when the hero, in
all honesty, addresses a letter to the resistance with basically "TAKE
TO SEKRIT HIDEOUT AND DONT TELL" and then is interrupted by pirates so
that he can be rescued by a spy and decide that he doesn't want to
help the resistance today. Then we go back to intricate descriptions
of how to build a city in a miles-wide water droplet.

It's a hard, hard mix to pull off, and Mr. Schroeder comes close
enough that every misstep really hurts. It reminds me of a phenomenon
in computer graphics that I have heard called the "zombie gap." when
animation is really unrealistic, people relate to the characters as
human; when animation is essentially perfect, people relate to the
characters as human. But when it's almost perfect, people are
extremely creeped out by the little differences. "Sun of Suns" is
like that.

Oh, and the meta-plot (the one revealed right at the end) makes
absolutely no sense. Stepping gingerly to avoid spoiling things,
let's just say that the forces involved have no need for being so
roundabout to achieve their aims.

I also notice that it's intended to be the first in a series. That
certainly makes the hurried, broken ending make more sense, but it
doesn't excuse it.

All told, I would call "Sun of Suns" a good try. Enough so that I'm
going to try another book by Mr. Schroeder, and see if it's better.
He's definitely an author with potential---a real talent for writing
and a really ambitious scope of ideas. The question is whether he can
make these two work in harmony. In "Sun of Suns," they fight,
producing a book that is basically good, but hits a picky person like
me in the funny bone.