Sometimes I think the ever-expanding sphere of knowledge that comprises our known universe is so amazing, writers of the fantastic will never run out of ideas. But sometimes I think speculative fictioneers have their work cut out for them. World-building seems like something that is bound to roll to a stop. Hasn’t every major iteration of an alien planet been done, in broad strokes, at least?
Having just completed Sun of Suns, the first volume of the Virga series, I’m pleased to be proven wrong on that score. Combining elements of diesel-punk, space opera, and additional conceptual components I’m rather at a loss to categorize, Karl Schroeder really has created something new.
The book’s opening describes a small town that might well be in an England of centuries past, where a young lad is stuck doing chores for the cook. His mother, we hear, is an engineer, and doesn’t need him underfoot when she’s at a critical juncture in her project. It’s a very classical sort of opening to a familiar kind of story: the Bildungsroman. But Schroeder also makes it known very quickly that this isn’t your average faux Medieval-cum-Victorian setting.
The boy is preparing “fish” — by removing all the feathers. The town is continually spinning, and we’ll soon understand that a regular centripetal motion is the only sort of “gravity” the people of Virga will ever know. These two facts are related, though the reader won’t discover the full picture of this world until much later in the book. What we do know from very near the start is that ordinary gravitational attraction is essentially undetectable, which means everything from lakes to forests to farm plots are in perpetual freefall, directed by the vagaries of the air currents if at all.
The working out of the physics is one of the great joys of this novel. The combination of a microgravity environment that nevertheless contains a breathable atmosphere makes for some fascinating possibilities, and Schroeder takes us through them one by one. But it’s also a rip-roaring story. A small- to medium-sized cast of characters represent a diverse array of viewpoints. Over-the-shoulder POVs range from our young hero (who we see again as a man after the initial prologue-like chapter) to a navy admiral, his brilliant and wickedly dangerous wife, and an off-world scientist inventor.
I don’t know which characters, if any, will be returning in the next book, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s the world that I can’t wait to jump back into. Since that’s not usually the part of a book or series I tend to be most drawn to, that probably gives you an idea of just how fascinating a world Schroeder has created.
Virga is a closed world, and its many suns — man-made sources of fusion energy — are contained inside it, rather than shining their light from the distant reaches of space. The suns are sources of economic wealth and political independence, with ruling factions jealously guarding and doling out their energy. The distances in between the suns are known as winter, where outcasts hide and pirates prey.
This is a world where the concept of a ship is somewhere between a spacecraft and a Spanish galley. Cutting through the atmosphere in three dimensions, ship’s navigators nevertheless consult old charts and make calculations on paper, while an on-board carpenter uses planks and tar to maintain hull and deck. The setting has very much the feel of the age of exploration.
There’s no electronic or wireless technology, so information spreads slowly, by courier and traveller, with truth and rumour thoroughly mixed. The result is a sense of epic myth at the very heart of this world: stories abound of abandoned forest cities, towns cut into floating lakes, the so-called sun of suns. Do they really exist? Even the world’s origins are shrouded in legend.
Everyone loves pirates and airships, but Schroeder’s are a very different sort of airship and his is a different sort of world than we’ve seen before. As iconic and familiar as some of the elements in this setting are, they grow out of the basic premise so organically, it reads like really deeply thought-out future sci-fi rather than a simple assemblage of favourite tropes.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.