Karl Schroeder
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Tor, HC, © 2000, 477 pp, ISBN #0-312-87197-X
Reviewed April 2006

Schroeder's first science fiction novel is an inventive and solid entry into the canon of hard science fiction.

A thousand or so years in the future, the planet Ventus was the subject of early terraforming efforts through nanotechnology and is now inhabited. The populace, however, are little more than a late-medieval feudal society. They worship and/or live in fear of the Winds and the mecha which pervade the landscape. Sometimes the winds deliver their fury on the populace for no apparent reason, while the mecha are mostly to be avoided as dangerous roving beasts.

Jordan Mason is a young man who works for a noble family, but who has lately started having frightening dreams about a faraway battle and a general therein who dies during it. He is kidnapped by Calandria May and Axel Chan, a pair of offworlders - a concern Jordan has never thought of - who are on the planet to find and stop General Armiger. Armiger was the servant of a mad godlike entity in a war in heaven; the entity was destroyed, but May and her allies believe that Armiger might hold the secret to the entity's resurrection. May herself is more-than-human in some ways (and less in others), and is risking everything to kill him. Jordan is psychically linked to Armiger and May and Chan hope to use Jordan to find him.

The book takes place in three parts: First, Jordan's abduction, and his gradual education into the reality of the world around him, and learning how to control and even use the visions he gains from Armiger. Second, after a huge disaster, Jordan goes on his own and hooks up with a travelling merchant and his daughter. Armiger's goings-on are revealed as he travels to visit Queen Galas, a queen of a southern land who has learned to talk to and use the knowledge of the winds and who seeks to change the world, but who is besieged by her own people who resist the changes she brings. As Jordan travels to meet her, he learns even more about the nature of his world, and that he suddenly has a surprising place in it. The final part focuses on the various characters in a mad dash and skirmish to control Ventus, a task made more difficult as the character of the winds is exposed, especially the error committed when the terraforming project was first implemented.

Ventus is a sweeping and very ambitious novel, not entirely successful. There are plenty of meaty ideas and clever uses of nanotechnology, along with the collision of the Ventus ecology with the visitors from outside: The Winds are jealous gods, not given to suffer the intrusion of strangers, but the reason for this is not capricious and plays out cleverly.

The character side of the novel is more haphazard. The book's true hero is Jordan, but Schroeder seems uncertain whether he wants to make it truly Jordan's novel or an ensemble cast. So early on Calandria May seems like the other major player, but she becomes considerably less significant towards the end (and the conclusion of her story arc is not at all satisfying). Chan takes up some of the slack, but never really becomes a well-rounded character. Armiger and Galas, on the other hand, are both interesting figures in their own right and rival Jordan in the final chapters in that they have satisfying conclusions to their stories, but the two are fairly marginal figures in the early going. One of the problems with writing an ensemble-cast story is that it seems like someone always gets the short end of the stick, and I think Ventus would have been more successful had he limited the focus of the story to fewer significant characters.

Thematically, the story pokes at issues of ambition, hope, and loss, but it's never really the book's central concern (in some part because Armiger ends up developing beyond his initial urges, while May shuffles off the stage without fully resolving her issues). After a fashion, Jordan and Armiger each grow up, while Galas finds that she has to recast her life in a different way as the world she's known changes around her. But these elements are subsumed in the exciting narrative and the ideas content. I was more pleased that Jordan ended up being a pretty smart and savvy guy when push came to shove, rather than intrigued at his character's development.

I'm looking forward to reading Schroeder's later work; if his narratives develop in sophistication, then he'll be a good one to watch.


Tor, HC, © 2002, 447 pp, ISBN #0-765-30371-X
Reviewed June 2006

Permanence demonstrates that Karl Schroeder's forte is world-building, or in this case universe-building. In the universe herein, humanity headed to the stars when it discovered that brown dwarf stars sometimes contained planets which could be terraformed for human life. The Cycler Compact was formed among these so-called "Halo Worlds", a group of planets, stations, and mining colonies which kept in touch via slower-than-light "cyclers", ships which efficiently - but slowly - looped through the worlds in the Compact for trade and travel. But then a means of faster-than-light travel was discovered, and it could only be started from near a stellar body of significant mass, such as Earth, but excluding brown dwarfs and most worlds in the Cycler Compact. A new human civilization sprung up using the FTL drive, and the Halo Worlds fells into decline.

Rue Cassels is a young woman living on a comet, the daughter of miners. Her brother Jentry loathes her and when he parents die, he plans to sell her into slavery. She manages to escape, stealing the shuttle they jointly inherited, and sets off for a Cycler world, Erythrion. Along the way her ship happens to spot a large body, which she registers a claim on. A comet this size would make her rich when she arrived at Erythrion, except that the body tuns out to be a cycler ship, and thus unclaimable. With help from her cousin Mac, Rue settles into life on Erythrion, hoping to gain citizenship, before it's revealed that the ship is actually an alien cycler, and if she can get to it before anyone else and operate it, she could still claim it.

With Max's help and resources, she strives to achieve her dream, but it will take the aid of ships from the FTL culture and the overcoming of several other obstacles before she can make it. And there's still the big question: What is an alien cycler doing in human space, and where did it come from?

This synopsis only scratches the surface of the book's wealth of ideas, and doesn't even touch on the idea which really hooked me when I hit it: In this universe, humans are the latest of many starfaring, sentient species, but all the others are long extinct. Sure, there are other starfaring species, but they aren't really sentient. What does that mean? Well, Schroeder puts together several examples of formidable advanced aliens which nonetheless can't be related to by humans. And the question of why there aren't any more sentient species around is a central plot question. Not because there's a big secret lurking in the background which needs to be revealed, but because of the theory Schroeder puts forth about long-lived cultures, the difficulties they encounter, and what this means for the future of a starfaring human culture. It's really quite cool.

Schroeder also sharply delineates the differences between the Cycler Compact and the FTL culture, called the Rights Economy. The Compact's ideals are founded in a one-for-all-and-all-for-one dream, since it's very difficult for any Halo World to survive on its own, and with the dwindling numbers of cyclers, the worlds are falling into a dark age. The Rights Economy, meanwhile, is the logical intersection of a libertarian ideal and high technology: Everything is tagged with nanotech which identifies its owner and value, and personal gain is the impetus behind the culture. In some short but effective scenes, Schroeder illustrates some of the profound problems with such a structure, and even though it's not much more than an aside, it's a thought-provoking look at a particular social structure.

The mystery of the alien cycler is peeled back slowly, and fortunately does not turn into an extended Rendezvous With Rama sort of excursion. On the other hand, its origins are, I think, left a little too ambiguous to be satisfying - or maybe I didn't quite buy the whole story behind the ship. It's hard to be certain, as it's an important part of the book, but neither the most important point nor the most interesting one.

The title of Permanence nominally refers to a religion in the Halo Worlds dedicated to maintaining the spirit and integrity of the Compact. But the title more directly comes back to the central questions of the plot: How does a starfaring culture maintain itself over a long period of time? It takes a while for this theme to develop, though, and I thought the resolution of the theme was a little too neat and left too many questions (especially considering how effectively Schroeder had deconstructed systems like the Rights Economy). But it's food for thought.

I originally because interested in Karl Schroeder because at the 2002 Worldcon, Vernor Vinge was asked what he was reading that he recommends, and he specifically mentioned this novel. Permanence delivers the sorts of goods that Vinge typically delivers: Thought-provoking ideas and explorations of those ideas in an interesting universe. Despite the book's length, I think Schroeder perhaps spreads himself a little too thin, resulting in an ending which isn't entirely satisfactory. Nonetheless, it's still a fine novel, and a big step forward from Ventus. Worth a look for anyone who enjoys space opera and worldbuilding SF.

hits since 16 April 2006.

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