Volume 23, Number 04, Summer 2005

Iron Sunrise

By Charles Stross

Ace Books, 2004, $25.95
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
July 2005

In the past couple of years Charles Stross has emerged as one sf’s brightest and freshest voices. Iron Sunrise follows in the universe of Singularity Sky, a dazzling tour de force of invention and ideas. While the former book showed the brash approach of a violin virtuoso performing complex tunes and madcap jigs in quick succession, Iron Sunrise broadens the scope and increases the depth of ideas, hints a more mature and comfortable writer.

Moscow, a planet with several million inhabitants, dies in an instant when its sun goes nova, murdered via iron bombing directly in the core of the sun. Engaged in a trade dispute with another system, New Dresden, the dying planet manages to send off a deterrent fleet, an action of revenge that will take years to complete, as the vessels slowly accelerate from deep space along a hidden trajectory. Meanwhile, aboard an outer space station being evacuated in the face of the oncoming neutrino wave from the nova, Wednesday Stowger, a young girl, becomes a potential target when she discovers a deep secret that may be connected to the iron bombing.

Yet Wednesday carries another secret. Like Martin Springfield from Singularity Sky, Wednesday communicates with a special friend that no one else knows about, called Herman. Herman appears to be an agent of the eschaton, the god-like super AI that appeared years ago when a human creation became self-aware. Herman was the one who sent Wednesday on the mission that blipped someone’s radar, the effects of which do not become clear until a few years after the event.

In the meantime, UN agent Rachel Mansour, who we also met in Singularity Sky, now the wife of Springfield, finds herself thrust into a new mission. It appears that the deterrent fleet sent towards New Dresden can be recalled using special codes. However, someone is busily taking care of the small group of ambassadors who possess the codes, assassinating them one by one. Rachel’s task, along with a team of UN specialists, is to ensure the survival of the remaining ambassadors in order to issue the recall codes, and also discover who’s behind the assasinations.

Stross’ universe clearly sympathizes with some sort of libertarian ideals, although probably nowhere near the hard-core anarcho-capitalist wing of the movement. The UN still exists, but on a much smaller scale than today’s world-government wanna-be. Private law enforcement is standard on Earth, while in the universe the eschaton has scattered humans on hundreds of planets and let them evolve into strange mixes. Some of these mixes are benign, others caused the Moscow mass murder. Eventually the source of this crime steps forward. Known as the ReMastered, their very nature is so antithetical to liberty it makes one’s skin crawl.

The present situation finds us around three years removed from the Moscow action. Wednesday, now a surly and isolated near-adult, inhabits a different station with her family. One night, en route to a party, she encounters professional hitmen trying to kill her. It turns out that the import of what she learned years ago only now has become clear to the people involved with Moscow. Wednesday survives, but in the aftermath her family is wiped out, and she is forced to flee. Guided by Herman, she catches a ride aboard the Romanov, a vast passenger ship winging its way toward New Dresden. Here she befriends Frank “the Nose” Johnson, a bitter and angry warblogger, who is covering the murder of Moscow. In due course, Rachel and her crew, including Martin, arrive on the Romanov, which appears to be tracing the killing route, having stopped at several points where the murdered ambassadors were taken out.

In a race against time, Rachel, Wednesday, and the others discover an enemy far deadlier than they had imagined, with a dark purpose and design that reaches throughout the universe. Moscow may have been only the first step. Can Earth be far behind? And where does the eschaton fit into all this? For a near god-like being, it seems at times powerless or unwilling to interfere. Herman turns out to be but a small extension of the eschaton, and must act through sympathetic humans like Martin and Wednesday, who in turn show all the frailties of humanity. When faced with a relentless threat like the ReMastered, a blend of super-nazi jihadists capable of controlling other people like puppets, what recourse is left for a free society?

These very questions are one we grapple with today, as the world wakes each day to new actions of seemingly mindless acts of terror disguised as acts of religious war. I doubt Stross had this in mind when writing Iron Sunrise, as there have been enough such similar acts of mass terror throughout human history, more often than not perpetrated by governments and humans quite similar to the ReMastered.

As a work of fiction and sf, Iron Sunrise ranks as one of the best novels of 2004. The pacing is tight and tense, the characters superbly drawn. My only quibble with this book is the ending, which leaves the story wide open for another sequel, nay demands a sequel. The fact that we’ll probably have to wait a couple of years for such a sequel seems almost a crime. Charles Stross stands as one of the most original and bravest writers of sf today, writing with an unflinching vision, his literary arms buried in the scientific guts of ideas and direction that power this literature of ideas. In terms of entertainment and ideas, you can’t get closer to the ideal of science fiction today than Iron Sunrise.

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