#CBR4 Maneuver #5 – Pirate Sun
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Military Fiction
Summary: From the Back Cover,
“Chaison Fanning, the admiral of a fleet of warships introduced in the first book, has been captured and imprisoned by his enemies but is now rescued and set free. He must flee to his home city to confront the ruler who betrayed him. Perhaps while there, he will also regain his lovely, powerful, and subversive wife, Venera. He has not seen her since she fled, careening off into the air of Virga before he was captured, with the key to the artificial sun, Candesce, at the center of Virga”
After Action Report:
It’s so nice to be done with Steampunk for a bit. Not that the genre isn’t charming, but I was getting a little tired of it (and Stephen Hunt). Karl Schroeder’s Virga series caught my eye a few years back with its intriguing blend of hard sci-fi and medieval humanity. I’ve always been interested in media that explores humanity’s reaction to discovering that an underling truth of their world is false: The Matrix, Scrapped Princess, and now the Virga series. Schroeder’s books cut an extremely advanced form of humanity off from any technology more sophisticated than a jet engine and the culture has regressed to the point that they no longer understand the science underlying their home, an artificial habitat consisting of nothing but air and a fake sun. The core theme of the novels is the new directions that these societies and individuals take upon discovering the artificial truth of their world and their missing histories.
A quick catching-up: Virga #1, Sun of Suns introduces us to the hollow world of Virga, a small version of a Dyson Sphere, better described as a Fullerene Balloon, with an extremely small artificial sun, called Candesce, at its center. The habitable areas of the balloon are the zones of sky near to Candesce, and small nation-states orbiting even smaller artificial suns within the greater sphere. Each of these kingdoms occupies no more than a few hundred cubic miles and move in localized Hadley cells created by Candesce’s heat. Humans live in wheel-like constructed cities that are spun to produce gravity, similar to many space station concepts.
The protagonists of the first novel, Chaison Fanning and has wife Venera, are citizens of a Pirate Nation called Slipstream. Slipstream is anchored to a rogue comet that orbits Candesce, and moves without regard to the Hadley Cells’ rotation, meaning that it occasionally passes through territory controlled by other nation-states. Slipstream has a reputation for absorbing the resources of the nation-states it passes through. But their most recent conquest has provoked the ire of an aggressive neighbor and Chaison is forced into a dangerous mission to head off a preemptive attack. Hopelessly outnumbered, Chaison’s gambit relies on using a legendary lost technology called Radar to outmaneuver the enemy forces in a dangerous region of Winter, the cold air between kingdoms. But for the Radar to work, Candesce, the Sun of Suns, needs to be turned off, because in addition to keeping the world of Virga warm and livable, the Sun is responsible for a powerful field that inhibits electronics of all kinds.
In the wake of the mission, Chaison and Venera are separated. Queen of Candesce follows Venera after she crashes on Spyre, an enormous cylinder city tearing itself to pieces under the weight of age and thousands of warring micro-kingdoms. Venera takes advantage of her situation and positions herself to take control of Spyre, intending to gain enough influence and power to escape the city and rejoin her husband. Chaison is captured after heading off the fleet from Falcon Formation and placed in a zero-gee prison to rot, which is where we find him in Pirate Sun.
A bungled escape attempt leaves Chaison at the mercy of Antaea, a member of the mysterious Home Guard. Chaison had encountered the Home Guard briefly while visiting the skin of Virga. They have been tasked with the defense of Virga from the oppressive homogenizing forces outside. For whatever reason, the creators of Virga chose to create a world free from advanced technology, rejecting the dehumanizing ‘Artificial Nature’ that dominates the rest of the galaxy, and more specifically, the Vega star system. Antaea’s motives are unclear, but she wants the Key of Candesce back from Venera for the Home Guard. The Fanning’s little ploy back in book one opened Virga to hostile forces, if only for a few hours, and the Home Guard is now on high alert. Chaison and Antaea limp through Falcon Formation looking for a way back to Slipstream. The pair get caught up in a new war between Falcon Formation and their neighbors The Gretels; a war that has put Falcon Formation into an awkward alliance with Slipstream. Chaison’s escape has put that alliance in jeopardy making him the target of Falcon’s Secret Service, the Slipstream military and an unknown third party called the Bankers.
The book is slower pace than the earlier novels, with only two major action scenes. A substantial amount of time is spend with Chaison as he recovers from the withering effects of prolonged zero-gee exposure while he tries to unravel the intrigues that have woven themselves around him. Antaea is an extremely untrustworthy ally, forcing Chaison to consider his rescuer and companion a potential enemy. Where Venera shines in the midst of intrigue in Queen of Candesce, Chaison is a military man forced into a complex web of plots and schemes and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it. In some ways, this makes him a much more interesting figure, but it also makes him a passive participant in events. He does get a chance to do his thing during the Gretels’ invasion of Falcon, but the entire scene is irrelevant to the greater plot of the book. It’s a distracting military engagement that feels very much like shiny page filler. Really really great page filler, but filler nonetheless.
Fans of Virga frequently cite the unique and intriguing world as the biggest draw. But unlike a lot of speculative fiction, the protagonists are major reasons to follow the series. Still, Schroeder must be given credit for his concept. Speculative Fiction aficionados will recognize aspects of Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees in the environment of Virga. The concept of a free-fall environment inhabited by humanoids isn’t an entirely new one. Virga shines because of the combination of sci-fi and low tech elements that create an atmosphere most easily compared to naval fiction or pirate novels. It is a feeling that maintains the aura of exploration and adventure, while still embracing the tropes and attitude of harder forms of science fiction.
The greater conflict, hinted at in all of the novels, between the homogenizing outside forces seeking to assimilate Virga and the local Home Guard, desperate to maintain a last bubble of humanity in a digital universe, comes to the forefront in the final pages of Pirate Sun, and while this inevitable confrontation is critical to the greater story of the entire series, the conclusion is almost forgone. The legacy of Virga’s founders, the preservation of humanity even at the cost of the individual’s comfort and safety, is defended, if only for the moment. Schroeder’s loving depiction of the endearing flaws and virtues of unenhanced humanity leaves the reader no doubt about his personal feelings on the matter, but the underling moral dilemma is left in the hands of the reader.
Science Fiction is given to answering the tough questions about the dangers of too much technology too fast. It’s a common theme and one that deserves to be explored. Approaching it from the other side, a splinter of humanity that has been denied technology for so long they no longer remember the reasons for giving it up, is a fascinating way of addressing the same questions. Virga’s strength lies in this unique approach to what could be a more ordinary space opera. And in Schroeder’s ability to hide the metaphysics behind the curtain so you don’t really think about the greater implications until Antaea brings it up, 3 books into the series. Asking these questions is what brings deeper meaning to sci-fi, but Schroeder’s approach lets the reader mull over the reality of the situation for two whole novels before confronting the subject directly. Virga should make you think, but it will also give you a wonderful ride in a fresh world.