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Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder (TOR/Forge, 2012) is the fifth and final volume in the Virga series. It’s been quite a long ride since Sun of Suns first appeared from TOR in 2006 as a packaged version of the story serialised in Analog in 2005/6 — the serialisation actually continued with The Queen of Candesce. The main point of interest in this cycle of five books has been the opportunity to explore the environment. In this, it’s a bit like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C Clarke’s Rama. This time, we’re inside a fullerine balloon floating in space. That makes it free of gravity so our resourceful inhabitants create their own living cylinders that rotate — ah, the wonders of centrifugal force. Each of these environments is a city state with its own political structures. The main questions to be resolved are how this rather curious habitat came to be built and why there’s a suppressor field limiting the operation of technology within the balloon. This means everything depends on very primitive machinery, operating at a mediaeval level with wooden ships sailing the air currents and quite a lot of piracy.

Our understanding of how old this place is starts to become clearer in The Queen of Cenadesce as we get our first sight of those representing Artificial Nature. This “enemy” not unnaturally wants the limit on technology removed, but the main focus remains on the political infighting between the city states. The Pirate Sun finally explains something of the relationship between human society inside the balloon and the post-human civilisation outside, but the action is slowing down. The Sunless Countries moves us closer to the wall of the balloon so we’re further away from the artificial suns that provide the light and nearer points where visitors might come in from outside. It’s here the Home Guard patrols in its largely unacknowledged efforts to keep the inhabitants safe. Although this is interesting in explaining how people survive with even less technology, we move into a more political dimension with an emerging group demanding faith rather than science. The idea of determining truth through a democratic vote gives a new spin on current moves toward the cloud-sourcing of news. Because the main character in this book, Leal Maspeth, is an historian we get more information about what may be going on but, by this point, my interest had begun to flag. There’s still a wow factor in the exploration of the balloon, but the action is more muted. Frankly we’re into the fourth volume and it’s taking too long to solve the essential puzzle of the balloon habitat. You can only derive interest from apparently endless disputes between multiple fictional micro-states for so long. For the same reason, arguments about the uses and abuses of technology grow tiresome after a while.

Karl Schroeder getting a grip on his other half

So, four books later, we come straight in where The Sunless Countries cliffhanger left us. Leal and the surviving members of the team are struggling on, still dogged by the revenant of John Tarvey who’s survived drowning to become the walking embodiment of immortality. The humans are rescued from an avalanche by Keir Chen, an enigmatic but inherently interesting character from the appropriately named Revelation (now relocated to a point they call Renaissance) who’s going through a process called de-indexing. As a being dependent on a sophisticated neural computer support, his wife decided to switch off the machine. Or perhaps that’s a myth. Perhaps he did it to himself. Whoever was responsible, he’s no longer able to access his memories through the electronic index. He must make his own memory links or forget his past. He will, of course, continue to experience life and file memories the human way. It will just all be slower. And the reason for this somewhat dramatic loss of identity? Their computer system was hacked? That’s certainly one possible explanation. . . and he does seem to be getting physically younger as well. In other news, Hayden Griffen is rescued, Admiral Chaison Fanning is still in charge of military matters despite Vanera’s best efforts to make him redundant through her network of spies, and Jacoby Sarto and his more vicious sister Inshiri Ferance continue their sibling rivalry.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like post-Singularity fiction and, more importantly, enjoy puzzle-solving. But this pentalogy squeezed the juice out of the ideas about halfway through The Sunless Countries and left us with this husk. There are set pieces of action in the opening sections and, not surprisingly, there’s a big fight at the end. But in the central sections, there’s just far too much discussion of what technology is and, by implication, how dependent we have become on it. The complex political structure also grows more tedious as the different factions dispute among themselves as to who has the “right” answers. It’s obvious there has to be some degree of unity or else a deus ex machina group will emerge and save everyone regardless of their beliefs.

So what does it come down to when the dust has settled? The virtual world was dehumanised because it was not embodied. Karl Schroeder argues people stop caring what happens to them if they are not tied to a particular body, in a particular time and place. So the emotionless virtuals find the existence of a place where their technology does not work a threat to their belief system. They lose the sense of their own perfection in the face of this barrier to their presence. Hence the need for a war to destroy this human habitat. And the converse? In a Shakespearean spirit, this few, this happy few, this band of human brothers and sisters decide they don’t want the immortality of the virtual world. They want their lives to have meaning through their mortality, and who can blame them.

Stephen Martiniere produces a rather beautiful piece of "old" real estate

So, if you enjoyed the four that went before, you need to read Ashes of Candesce to see how it all turns out. If you have no idea who anyone is when you start, you will have even less idea when you finish. This is not something to read as a standalone. If you want to start with the best, read Sun of Suns. It was and remains an excellent adventure novel. For me, this final episode is just going through the motions.

The cover art by Stephan Martiniere is rather beautiful.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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