Review of Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
Reading Iron Sunrise has been a long time in coming, ever since I read Singularity Sky. I finally got around to ordering a copy and dug into it when I realized I needed a good science fiction read. As usual, Charles Stross delivers on all sorts of quixotic ideas that I love in my science fiction. I like the posthuman parts of Iron Sunrise even better than its predecessor, and its action scenes are definitely superior. My criticisms of it are similar to the ones I levelled at Singularity Sky too.
Though technically a sequel to Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise can be read standalone. They share two main characters, so the only real spoiler is that these characters survive the first book. Otherwise, no knowledge of the original book is required to understand or enjoy this adventure. Stross explains once again the premise of this universe: a human-created AI from the future, the Eschaton, relocates 90% of Earth’s population some time in the twenty-first century. Fast forward three hundred years, and Earth and these relocated worlds have recovered (but diverged) and humanity is now flourishing on any number of worlds connected by superluminal travel. However, the Eschaton rigorously polices any attempts to turn that superluminal capability into time travel—causality violations are harshly dealt with.
The title of the book refers to exactly such a violation. Someone uses a weapon to destroy the sun orbited by a human world called Moscow. The sun explodes, creating the “Iron Sunrise” that releases a deadly radiation shockwave. This precipitates any number of events that eventually become relevant to the story, from the evacuation of Wednesday from Old Newfie to the fleet of slower-than-light vessels that threaten New Dresden. But the bottom line is that a causality violation weapon happened … and the Eschaton didn’t stop it. That’s bad news (for someone).
This book features a shifting and large cast of characters. Wednesday is the first main character we meet and, in my opinion, probably the coolest. She is young and inexperienced, and this shows. But I like her grit; I like that she questions whether Herman has her best interests at heart even as she uses the information and training he provides her. I like that she makes mistakes and isn’t a whiz-kid who is always one step ahead of the bad guys. Finally, I like that when Stross kills off certain people close to her, she does not just shrug and get on with her life; instead, her grief becomes a major plot point towards the end of the book.
Rachel Mansour, also featured in Singularity Sky, is the other most prominent protagonist. I like Rachel too, though I find her voice in this narrative flatter than Wednesday’s. There is something about the combination of her practised indignation and her self-confidence that rings false to me—or at least, it feels too familiar, like Rachel is just another one of those hyper-capable science fiction heroes we see too often in these stories. That being said, I appreciate how Stross portrays her reluctance to get back into “the game”, so to speak. Rachel is a very capable person, but she also has desires beyond being a soldier or fixer for this UN body.
(I was also not down with the scene near the beginning of Rachel’s appearance where she has to use sexual, seductive-type techniques to help defuse a bomb. It’s dumb and sexist, and worse, it’s dumb and sexist in a book that is otherwise full of smart and diverse female characters, protagonists and antagonists. And I suppose Stross is trying to play it as a commentary on the weaknesses of the patriarchy and the way smart women can exploit those, but I still don’t like it.)
I could continue talking about the half-dozen other named characters who get narrative time, but I don’t think I will. Iron Sunrise introduces almost too many characters, in my opinion—at least, I feel like parts of it are very extraneous indeed. In the end, I guess it kind of all comes together; I certainly like how the minor problem Rachel is facing at the very beginning turns into something linked to the larger ReMastered threat, suggesting a much richer story at work in the background. However, this 400 page book took much longer to read than I anticipated, and I blame some of that on how the number of main characters dilutes the intensity of the storytelling.
There are two complementary aspects of this book that make it good for me. First, there are the obvious science-fictional, posthuman elements. I’m labelling this book a “space opera” even though, technically, I don’t think it really falls under that genre—though it could if it wanted to. It has the setting of a space opera if not the story elements. It isn’t just the “big idea” stuff, like blowing up suns or time-travelling AIs. It’s the small things: the communication rings that people use, the smart-fabric that allows them to change fashion so quickly, etc. Stross is really good at imagining not just the technology that will take us to other stars but the ways in which faster and more miniature computing is changing our daily lives. Despite being written over ten years ago now and the fast pace of technological development, Iron Sunrise doesn’t yet feel outdated or obsolete, nor will it likely be in the foreseeable future.
Coupled to the technology, though, is the thriller plot. Because that’s basically what this novel becomes in the third act: the good guys are all aboard a FTL liner with the bad guys, who pre-emptively hijack it, and shit goes down. It’s tense and exciting; there is a lot of disguising and doubletalk and backstabbing and double-crossing! The best thing is, most of what happens could easily have been written as a thriller set in the present day. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much then. Stross takes the plot, dresses it in the trappings and tropes of science fiction, and makes it more interesting. I’m reminded a little bit here of The Expanse, which does something similar with political intrigue. Science fiction is useful as a tool for social commentary (of which Iron Sunrise has some, albeit in fairly non-subtle ways), but it is also a fantastic vehicle for breathing new life into old or often-used plots.
Having read a lot of Stross’ work now, I can safely say this is neither among his best nor his worst efforts. I like it, and I think people who have never read one of his novels before will like it. At the same time, I’d also caution that this isn’t representative of all his novels. If anything, Iron Sunrise reminds me how versatile Stross is. While it shares a certain fascination with economics and the wider picture of stochastic changes to complex systems, it is markedly different from his Laundry Files series, for example, or his near-future Scottish crime novels. It will go on my Stross shelf, but it’s probably not the first Stross I’ll re-read.