Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

Ashes of Candesce by Karl SchroederImagine a world where you can travel from sun to sun in wooden ships, without worrying about space suits since all of space is filled with air. Imagine a world without planets, with spinning town wheels to emulate gravity to keep humans – descended from us planet dwellers – healthy in a free fall environment. Then imagine that all kinds of technology that we have invented in roughly the latest 100 years (and kinds not invented yet) are disabled: no electricity, no electronics, no advanced nanotech or biotech.

You get a wonderfully strange environment. This is the setting of the Virga series by Karl Schroeder. Virga is a huge bubble world, filled with air and isolated from the surrounding universe. Many of the inhabitants are unaware of the nature of Virga and the existence of an outside. Here you get far future adventure with steampunk level technology.

This is a major worldbuilding exercise. Take a look at the beautiful cover images to tickle your sense of wonder a little bit. (There is going to be a graphic novel of the first Virga book, Sun of Suns. I wonder what that will look like!)

Worlds with some of these features have been created by others in science fiction. There are perhaps never any really new ideas. One recent example is Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (which I haven't read). In his story more advanced technologies can only function in the higher levels of a towerlike world. The Virga series develops these ideas with causes and consequences in an interesting way, perhaps deeper than anything before.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds  Sun of Suns (Virga #1) by Karl Schroeder Queen of Candesce (Virga #2) by Karl Schroeder

Ashes of Candesce concludes the Virga series, consisting of five books. According to Karl Schroeder himself, the books are written to stand alone as much as possible. The first three are tied together in one story arc: Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce (these first two are also collected in one volume as Cities of the Air ) and Pirate Sun. Here the focus is on life, struggles, intrigues and battles within Virga. The final two books, The Sunless Countries and Ashes of Candesce open up to the outside, which is dominated by something called Artificial Nature. Virga is threatened, and the stakes are high: it's about the continued existence of humans, and perhaps of any embodied intelligence at all.

Full disclosure: I haven't read all of the Virga books, so my description relies partly on back cover descriptions, reviews and the author's website. Now, I'm sure I will have to get hold of the first three books. The setting fascinates me, and I want to inhabit Virga a little bit longer. Still, I can testify that it's possible to follow the story without starting from the beginning of the series.

 Pirate Sun (Virga #3) by Karl Schroeder Sunless Countries (Virga #4)  by Karl Schroeder Cities of the Air (Virga #1, 2) by Karl Schroeder

One of the intriguing things about Virga concerns how and why someone would want to construct a place like this. The mechanism suppressing advanced technologies is contained in Candesce, the central "sun" of Virga. The control of Candesce is the ultimate prize of Virga. Of course there are obvious drawbacks with not being able to use all known technology. No unchallenged romantic low-tech bliss. People die, when they really would not have to. So there must be an important advantage, but what? Why did someone invent something like Candesce? Exploring this, and the struggle between various groups, the story also touches interesting questions like the relationship between mind and body.

My favourite character in this book is Keir, who starts out as a mystery even to himself. He knows that he is losing memories and knowledge, but he doesn't know why. In the end his secrets turn out to be very important for the solution of the conflict. He comes from a world outside Virga, and through his eyes the good and the bad aspects of life in Virga stand out in sharp relief. It's also touching to follow Keir as he loses the function of his neural implant system, the scry, which has always provided him with augmented reality information and extended memory functions.

This is an example of one of my favourite things in science fiction: how it can make the familiar strange and wonderful. Like biological memory, and how to use it. It's not necessarily optimal, but it is something that I use all the time never reflecting over the special experience. This gave me little kicks of sense of wonder for a couple of days, and at the same time made me a bit frustrated with the shortcomings of my own powers of recollection. But of course, we all use extended memory: writing, photography, sound recordings and so on. Which we also tend to take for granted.

Karl Schroeder is definitely an author to watch. I might even take a look at his earlier works, things he wrote before Virga.