Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hard Science Space Pirates


In a speech at a convention on open source last year, Karl Schroeder mentioned the idea, discovered by cognitive scientists studying ship navigation, that there are some cognitive activities that cannot be accomplished by a single cognitive entity. What does that mean?

Put another way, sometimes humans act as a hive mind, rather than a collection of individual thinkers. Hearing that blew my mind. You can find out more about this on his website, where you'll also see that he's a writer. As you may guess, he's a Science Fiction writer, with a heavy emphasis on the science.

It's his love of trippy science, and of following a single scientific idea down the rabbit hole, that lead to one of the coolest sf fictional worlds to come along in a long, long time.

Sun of Suns, the first book in Schroeder's Virga series, is as bizarre as it is scientifically accurate. Imagine a five thousand mile diameter sphere orbiting a star, and the inside is filled with air, water, and chunks of rock big and small. Now populate that space with people. Give them early 20th century technology. What you get is mindbending physics jammed into a swashbuckling adventure: inhabitants experience atmosphere but not gravity, so they create spinning city states and miniature fusion suns and do battle like it's 1799 in wooden space ships.

Right now we are in the midst of the greatest wealth of science fiction aimed at teens ever. However, what you don't get, in all the fantastic YA SF out there, is that awesome headrush of explosive, hard science ideas colliding with heady fiction. Scott Westerfeld is an exception, and not the only exception, but much of YA's science fiction isn't as interested in exploring the remote possibilities of ideas on the bleeding edge of science--not the way Schroeder does in his fiction.

A friend of mine once disparaged hard-core hard science fiction as, for the most part, a place where writers explore all the minute implications of, say, a world orbiting binary suns, yet complain because their editors demand pesky things like "plot" and "characters." Karl Schroeder defies that characterization.

His Virga series has epic sweep, striking, indelible characters, and action galore. I could go on and on about all the great things going for this book, but instead I need to just shut up and let you go out and read the book yourself.

I mean, c'mon. Space pirates? On wooden Ships? Fighting over handmade fusion suns? In zero gravity?

How can that possibly not rock?


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3 comments:

AareneX said...

Great book review--I can't wait to read it!

Biblibio said...

You had me at the post title. And then even more so with the Schroeder's science-ness. And if that wasn't enough, I probably would have been won over with just the phrase "do battle like it's 1799 in wooden space ships". This sounds absolutely amazing in terms of adventure plot. And "indelible characters"?

Seriously, though. There's been a wave of young adult dystopian "sci-fi" recently and not enough of the (for lack of a better term) "proper" variety. This has got my interest.

Justin Colussy-Estes said...

Yeah, I don't want to knock dystopian fiction--it's incredibly important as far as SF traditions go--but I feel like YA and middle grade SF is either science fantasy or dystopian or somewhere in between, and that kidslit SF writers have ceded hard science to the grown-ups.

Which is too bad. I don't want to get nostalgic for nostalgia's sake, but, before the advent of kidslit, SF by Asimov and Heinlein and the like was often the link between reading books intended for kids and reading books for adults.