Karl Schroeder is another author of which I’ve read one major series, Virga in this case, but am ignorant of any other work. Permanence is his second novel and, if lacking some of the deft touch of the Virga books, is overflowing with the kind of mad inventiveness that characterizes that series. Schroeder uses one of my favorite tropes, the Big Mysterious Object, as the foundation for the plot, but the book is really about one of his pet topics, brown dwarf civilizations. Then, just because he can, Schroeder creates a new religion, tosses in some interstellar geopolitics, and ruminates on various first contact possibilities. He is nothing if not fearless.
Schroeder starts with the recent scientific theory that the universe is rich with free range brown dwarf stars, many capable of supporting colonies that fill the spaces between the bright stars we are more familiar with. In Permanence, these colonies are The Cycler Compact, brown dwarf worlds held together by sub-light ships that follow circular trade routes through the stars. Then Schroeder adds the Lit Worlds, with their FTL capabilities and ability to hop from bright star to bright star, bypassing the Compact. This has predictably dire economic consequences for the brown dwarf worlds, similar to the way people are choosing Tampa and San Diego over Cleveland and Detroit. The Cycle Compact was one of my favorite parts of the book, because there is a dearth of sub-light, interstellar universes out there.
The aforementioned BMO kicks off the plot, but Schroeder handles things a bit differently. If we’re going to pick nits, it’s more of the Space Hulk sub-trope at work here, though not of the “Face hugging aliens terrorizing everyone” variety. The origin, nature, and purpose of the BMO is pretty clear by the second quarter of the book; what occupies everyone is figuring out what that means politically and socially in the already unstable Compact – Lit World relationship. The BMO presents a clear challenge to the prevailing political economic theory in the Lit Worlds and offers hope to the Compact economically, but also has deeper ramifications for the way humanity interacts with the universe. This is also where Schroeder slides in NeoShinto, a religion he has pieced together that has its own mostly benign agenda.
NeoShinto, while not utterly crucial, is something that kept me engaged with the book. I suppose this is inevitable, because while NeoShinto has nothing to do with Japan, it is built on two major Japanese belief systems. It is not a religion in the Western sense, with churches, afterlives, commandments, rituals, and hierarchy. Instead, it is a vehicle for enlightenment and inner peace through meditation and an attempt to stabilize the reeling Compact. This is facilitated by kami, the Japanese word for gods, that are captured as a digitized essence. While Shinto kami reside in rivers, trees, rocks, and whatnot, NeoShinto takes theirs from the feelings generated by places. The more remote and exotic the location, the more power the kami allegedly has. Japanese Shinto is traditional animism; the gods are known to bestow favor in response to human pleas, but are not themselves the subject of meditation, nor is enlightenment a Shinto concept. Indeed, the peace through meditation part of NeoShinto comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition, which is wholly separate from Shinto, though they coexist without any contention in contemporary Japan. NeoShinto is never a main player in Permanence, but one of its kami gatherers is a viewpoint character and his beliefs flow subtly through the narrative. I have no illusions as to why I spent so much time thinking about this aspect of the book, but make no excuses for thinking that it added a deeper dimension to the story.
At something close to 400 pages, Permanence is crowded with these ideas. In addition to the above topics, he also spends some time addressing the Fermi Paradox and potential issues of alien contact. Unlike some optimistic books, the characters in Permanence are more or less resigned to the idea that the aliens in the universe are so completely alien that communication is well-nigh impossible. The groups Schroeder introduces are plenty fascinating on their own, but contact with them is necessarily infrequent. (For example, one race is photosynthetic and finds carnivorous humanity so barbarous as to be unworthy of conversation.) The hard part of having so many fascinating things to say is finding out how to say them in a concise, coherent manner.
This is, I suppose, where Permanence falls apart a little. The plot happens in the first and last 50 pages or so, with everything in between acting more as a travelogue. In fact, the switch from reader exploration to climactic action is abrupt enough that I didn’t catch up for several pages. A lot of time is spent with Michael, the NeoShinto kami gatherer. He is interesting and sympathetic, but also slow moving and somewhat tangential to the plot. (That’s not entirely fair. He is central to the plot, but he didn’t need to be. Things would have happened with or without him.) There’s so much happening and so many ideas to process that each of them feel somewhat shortchanged. This is a book that could easily have been expanded, or at the very least followed up on. For the time being, Permanence appears to be standalone, which seems like a lot of world building for not much story.
I feel like this is a quibble though. Schroeder is wildly ambitious, something I generally accord the benefit of the doubt. I would much rather read a book that swings grandly for the fences and misses here and there, than a book that is safe and predictable. The Cycler Compact is a refreshing change from the Solar System Only or FTL Ahoy dichotomy inherent in SF, the conflict between the Lit Worlds and the Compact is a logical and inevitable political development. No maniacal bad guys with death rays here. And this doesn’t even get into the different political systems involved, history of Elder Races, characters with tormented souls, etc. Permanence is Big Idea SF in concentrate. Virga demonstrates a much tighter, action-oriented writing style and tames Schroeder’s tendency to intellectually explode on paper, but Permanence is a heady hint of what he is capable of.
Rating: A defense-splitting, audacious pass met with a bicycle kick that sends the ball caroming off the post. Another couple of inches and it’s a goal of the year; as it stands, a highlight to be shown for its sheer exuberance and daring.