Ashes of Candesce
DownBeat, the leading jazz publication, divides its annual Critics Poll into two: the Best (whatever) and the Rising Star (whatever). The latter used to be called Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (TDWR), which I prefer as a name, even if it doesn’t roll off the tongue. This split allows the critics to vote someone venerable like Sonny Rollins or Dave Brubeck as the best, even though they are ancient, have lost a step or two, and are no longer on the cutting edge; while simultaneously recognizing the younger faces who are really driving the music forward today. I wish the Hugos would do the same, because in a year when SF titans are dropping major works, someone like Karl Schoeder is going to be shut out. Not that I want to take anything away from a masterwork like 2312, but I’d love to see some of the lesser known writers get more attention with a TDWR award.
Candesce is the fifth and (for now) final book of Schroeder’s Virga cycle. Virga is one of the most impressive Hard SF series of the last decade, though I imagine the author didn’t expect it to go in the direction that it did. The first book introduces Virga, a giant, atmosphere-filled balloon with a technology-damping fusion sun called Candesce in the middle. Other, smaller, artificial suns dot the inside of Virga, each with its compliment of cities, farms, and factories. Virga itself is weightless, so the cities are spun up for gravity. This paired with a sun that prevents any transistor or digital technology creates an evocative landscape of wooden city wheels, rotating patches of forest and farm, bubbles of water for lakes, and people moving at all angles via airship, ropeway, air cycle, or personal wing and fin sets. The series started out as adventure yarns in the style of classic nautical tales, with the first three books forming a trilogy of sorts. (The stories are more or less sequential, but each book follows a different character.) The fourth book takes off in a whole new direction, with mostly new characters and places, while Candesce brings everything together.
It also brings the philosophy, which is both where the fun begins and where Candesce fulfills its promise. Intentional or not, Schroeder jumps head first into one of SF’s biggest debates with this book. The Virga series could have stayed with zero-g swashbuckling, wooden ships, iron men, and what not, but for whatever reason, Schroeder decided that he wants more. I have no idea if the last books were conceived as such, but they form an extended counter to the ideas espoused by Greg Egan, Charlie Stross, and others who suggest that humanity’s future lies in some variety of uploaded, software state. Schroeder is unconvinced by this, and has said so in interviews, arguing that our consciousness is too tied up with our wetware to allow simple digitization.
This debate plays out viscerally in Candesce, as the analog Virgans resist incursions from the digitized Artificial Nature, who want to extinguish whatever it is in Candesce that shuts down high technology and upload everyone. Virga is packed full of fractious city-states, so factions and agendas abound. Likewise, numerous groups living outside of Virga ensure that this is not a straightforward, two-sided battle. Further muddying the waters is the simple fact that the Virgans are not idiots. They realize what technology can bring and aren’t sold on their Industrial Revolution era lives. It isn’t clear until near the end just which groups will end up allied with each, or indeed which side is “right.” Most impressive to me is Schroeder’s overall stance. Virga would be easy to idealize, to protect with a paternal attitude of saving the innocents from the evils of The Future. Schroeder is no such romantic however; he is fully on board making lives better through science. In one of the most vivid scenes in the book, a character is stunned by the intensity and happiness of the short, biological lives, only to witness just how messy and tragic those lives can be.
While the meta-dialog shines brightest for me, the book is hardly a philosophy text. Virga is an amazing creation and a world I would love to visit. I doubt it would be a good live action movie, but I would love to see someone like Miyazaki animate Rush or Spyre. And while the pace starts off much slower than the other books, everything blows up for the last hundred pages of frenetic action. Schroeder has lost none of his kinetic prose; this may be his most balanced book for brains and explosions.
The characters are also engaging and likable, though my own favorite is relegated a bit to the background. To be fair, the pirate engineer and renegade sun-lighter Hayden Griffin probably sounds more interesting than he actually is, so I have to trust that the author keeps him in the background for a reason. The newer characters are also interesting, especially those coming from outside Virga, but in the end it is Venera Fanning who rules over the entirety of the series. Nobody else can even approach her mad, regal bearing. I don’t envy Venera’s husband, but she deserves immortality.
Candesce was released early in 2012, so it may be natural that it is less talked about now, especially considering the blockbusters that came out over the summer. Schroeder has a lot on his plate besides writing; I wonder if the book would be more well-known if he spent some of that time blogging, tweeting, going to cons, and generally engaging more with fandom. On the other hand, consulting for the Canadian military has to pay much better, so in his place, I would likely do the same. My only regret is that Candesce will be on my Best of 2012 list, while I fear it will be left off many others, not because my tastes are weird (though they probably are), but because people were blinded by higher profile releases and missed this one. (Maybe I’m totally off base and Candesce is a really big deal. I feel like I’m going to say all of this and then have fifty people tell me that Schroeder is everywhere and what internet have I been looking at anyway?)
Because of that, I want the Hugos to award Ashes of Candesce this year’s Talent Deserving Wider Recognition for novels. More people need to be reading about Virga, talking about Schroeder’s ideas, and possibly building a zero-g theme park so I too can flit about the city wheels.
Rating: Hoffenheim. Quietly putting together quality seasons, but out of the spotlight because, well, they’re Hoffenheim.