Sun of Suns – The Light from Within (book review)

I finished reading Karl Schroeder’s SF (only his 4th!) book, Sun of Suns, a few days ago. I was reading it before, during and after A Fire Upon the Deep. Normally I don’t read books at the same time – I get too confused due to short-term memory problems, but I’d “lost” it, needed something to read, found it, lost FUTD, etc.

On Schroeder’s web page, he has a link to a great site, A.C. Radebaugh’s The Future We Were Promised. “Radebaugh was a top-notch commercial illustrator who worked for companies as diverse as Chrysler and Coca-Cola. He was based in Detroit from the 1930s to 1960s, and much of his work anticipated design revolutions in the automotive and other industries. He once described his work as “halfway between science fiction and designs for modern living.”

“Radebaugh’s virtuosic airbrush technique created luminous illustrations which conveyed the sleek, streamlined look of the future. From flying cars to glamorous skyscrapers, his renderings were both pragmatic and fantastical, showing possibilities unimagined, derived from the technology of the day.” – From the on-line museum that features his works, hosted by the Palace of Culture, by Rachel Mackow and Jaren Rosenbaum, artists and musicians. It has some fun stuff from the past, including this picture below, which I, as a reader, loved. Imagine being able to lie back and just read the ceiling! No cramped arthritic hands from holding a small paperback, or heavy hardcover, but easy to read, adjustable print! Now I’m not a fan of reading on-line due to the lighting problems, but this idea should pose no problem to me – my only wonder is why it was never developed?

Electronic Home Library

Sun of Suns is a fairly short book, the first in his Virga trilogy. The next one, Queen of Candesce is out in hardcover. Schroeder has the amazing feat of having his books published in HC first, something not many SciFi authors can lay claim to. And this is only his fourth book, the others being Ventus, Permanence, and my favorite, Lady of Mazes. In just a few books, he has established himself as one of the preeminent authors in the field. He is one of my all-time favorite authors.

Sun of Suns Queen of Candesce Pirate Sun

“In the Virga books, I’ve pushed even further, to create an innovative science fictional world. Once again, it had to be a playground–somewhere I and my readers could revisit in our imaginations long after finishing the books. Virga is that kind of a world.”

Sun of Suns is a fairly short book, 331 pgs in PB form, and set in one of the most innovative “worlds” I’ve yet to encounter, and that’s saying a lot, coming from Schroeder – the master of world-building.

Virga is a planet – where the inhabitants live inside! As the back cover says (but not at the outset in the book – you have to figure it out) – Virga is a fullerene balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter, filled with air, water, and aimlessly floating chunks of rock. The humans who live in this vast enviornment must build their own fusion suns and ‘towns’ that are in the shape of enormous wood and rope wheels that are spun for centrifugal gravity.”

There are hundred of smaller suns inhabiting Virga, all originally powered off the main sun, Candesce. But to the inhabitants, it’s all they’ve ever known – any other life outside Virga is “lost.” Candesce is THE Sun of Suns, larger than all the rest, and providing sunlight for dozens of civilizations. It is the greatest source of heat, and creates the circulation cells of air that cause the nations to migrate slowly inward and outward. The winds drive the nations slowly around, but the stiff winds are normally exposed to the inhabitants only at the edges of the towns, or in the open air, where it could tear you off a “bike” if you were going too fast and not hanging on or tied on. Slipstream (a wandering nation) is a different sort of place. It has a large migrating asteroid that they mine, which is the source of their wealth – their sun is tethered to the asteroid, as are the towns, which are connected both inside and out via a series of ropes. Traffic between towns and within larger ones is done by bike, by hanging on to a rope and walking or pulling yourself along, depending on gravity, and by cable cars. Inside most of Virga and it’s towns and nations is a mass of such ropes.

The towns inside this “planet” are mostly small ones, collectively connected into “nations.” Small ones, like our protagonist’s Aerie, large wandering ones like Slipstream, and even larger ones like Gehellen. The principalities are in “layers” – many close to the Sun of Suns, Candesce, others in the intermediate air, like Gehellen, and still others further out, like Aerie. In between these, are layers of winter – dark and cold, with choppy air due to jet-streams, which make living there hazardous, although pirates roam these areas.

In the lower, more populated areas, spiders weave dense webs, on which floating debris is caught, and eventually weaves itself into mats of grass, trees, and flowers. Birds, fish and insects fly in these areas, which make travel with the large flying boats difficult. Since there is no “vacuum” in the planet, crews can stand outside their ships, call to one another, or sweep aside debris. The only problem is that they have to fly blind – they can’t see in the dark, except with lanterns, nor within cloud banks – they send ahead bike riders, who scout out the area for trouble-spots. But the Admiral has a plan to solve this…

Most 0f the nations in Virga follow the diurnal pattern established by Candesce, but a few rogue states do not, so in more populous areas, it was never truly night. There are of course, no “stars.” In the “winter” areas there are “black suns,’ small weak suns, that are covered, with only portholes to allow a little light to shine – enough for the pirates to work with. Water collects in drops, larger drops, and into even larger pools, sometimes framed to keep a certain shape. Farmers lived in the more outlying areas, and farm the asteroids that collect debris and form soil, and some even live inside larger bodies of water, because they are colder, and allow for storage of perishable items. Most of these people are exiles, with sallow complexions from living without much sunlight. In one of these larger bodies of water, they encounter a “town,” which is entered through a tunnel cut into the bubble of water: it is a normal small wheel town which provides the sought after gravity so desired in Virga. On the outside “walls” of Virga hang giant icebergs, stuck on the inside surface, though occasionally one falls off and presents a challenge for unwary travelers.

The towns, in smaller states, are “seldom more than two hundred yards across, and were simply wheels made of wooden planks lashed together and spoked with roped. You spun up the whole assembly and built houses on the inside surface of the wheel.” In places like Aerie, there were usually never more than five or six of these wheels together. In larger towns, like the nearby Rush, capitol of Slipstream, there are dozens of towns of polished metal. “They were more cylindrical than ring-shaped, and none was less than five hundred yards in diameter! The most amazing thing was that they were tethered to the forested asteroid in quartets, like mobiles; radiating from each cylinder’s outer rim were bright sails of gold and red that transformed them from mere towns into gorgeous pinwheels.” The towns spun, so as to provide centrifugal gravity, a precious resource. In some towns, only the rich are allowed to have access, so that the poor and servant class live in constant free-fall, with accompanying bodily changes and weakness.

In the small towns like Aerie, the gravity is provided for all by taking turns riding “bikes” with a fan at one end and an alcohol burner at the other end. One simply jumped on the bike, spun up the fan with the pedals, lit the burner, and dropped the bike through the open hatch in the floor, and with this being done twice a day, it provided the “spin” that Aerie needed for gravity, a public utility.

Virga is full of air currents, and the towns need the sails to keep themselves in place. There is no electricity, or radios, or much technology of any kind. Travel is by flying boat, bicycle (air), small fan-powered bikes, and other similar conveyances, like cable cars, and “cabs.”

The hero of the story is Hayden Griffen, described as a “very dangerous man.” His parents, part of a resistance movement to rid themselves of the larger state of Slipstream (which, in it’s wandering path, conquered Aerie and took over it’s towns), decided to build their own sun, thus taking back their own world, so that when Slipstream finally moved on, as it naturally would, being a migrating state, they would have a sun to light it. But Slipstream gets wind of this, and comes with it’s flying boats to “snuff out” the new sun, before it has a chance to shine, or to take it: a sun is a highly-sought after prize. His parents are killed in the ensuing fights and executions, and he is left alone. He ends up accidentally cast off from Aerie by a shock wave, when at the last moment, his mother lights the Sun so that Slipstream can’t have it, and he is knocked out into the “winter,” the dark, cold, outside edges of the planet (the inside of the balloon). It is there that he is press-ganged into the pirate trade, later escapes, and returns to Slipstream to avenge his father’s death.

In the process, he gets sucked up into a battle to save Slipstream from a conquering larger nation state that is more totalitarian in nature (and thus dangerous to Aerie too), and an even larger one, Falcon, that is secretly massing forces to take over Slipstream while they are engaged in battle with Mavery, the neighboring state. So he ends up helping the Admiral, the man he has sworn to kill, and the Admiral’s wife, Venera, a noblewoman in her own right, and a master of court intrigue and spying – it is she that finds the hidden “dreadnought” of Falcon Formation, which she persuades her husband and a small fleet to go after, while the rest of the fleet goes to battle with Mavery.

It is she who comes up with the plan to go after a legendary pirate’s treasure which just might hold the key to making this all possible, which is buried in an old sargasso, a collection of trees formed into a ball, but often with toxic air once they have ceased functioned. When the trees are working, and air is being circulated in and out, towns can be built inside. The one they are after, Leaf’s Choir, burned out long ago, but was the stuff of legends in it’s heyday. And then there’s Aubri, a mysterious woman with “secrets” that might just save Slipstream and Aerie from the conquering neighbor and the Falcon Formation.

The titular “head” of Slipstream is “The Pilot,” a king-like governor. Since everything revolves around the flying boats, used for travel and military reasons; instead of true kings, you have Pilots and Admirals. For the most part, the military functioned as a navy, and the government has the Pilot to rule.

The book is an incredible journey through this planet, formed by outside influences, to protect the inhabitants from the world outside (can’t give away too much!), but is still rather “backwards” in its technology. The only true technology is its main sun, Candesce. They have photographs, but not much else that is even remotely technical in nature. In some ways it’s almost 18th century. But the outside world is so much more…

The story builds slowly, as the shape of the world is explored, and the characters built. The characters in Sun of Suns are fully-formed, not cardboard cut-outs, with warts and all. Even the Admiral is a man with conflicts, emotions and ambitions. While it did take me a while to get going, once I got about half-way through the book, it just took off. Much like Ventus is that respect, although shorter. Lady of Mazes was a barn-burner from the get-go. This one is slower paced, quieter, perhaps because it is part of the trilogy, and he needed to set-up the “scene” so to speak.

No-one can beat Schroeder for his world-building skills: his ability to create complete new worlds, with new rules, is amazing. There is nothing else like it out there that I am aware of.

Kirkus gave it a starred review, and called it “outrageously brilliant and absolutely not to be missed.”

Vernor Vinge stated “over the years, science fiction has provided us with awesome environments, the best based on careful logic. there was Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity and Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. Karl Schroeder’s new novel is in a class with these masterpieces.”

Cory Doctorow says: “Mix in one part thrilling action, one part screaming-cool steampunk tech, and one part world-building and you’ve got Sun of Suns. And oh, what world-building! Schroeder is a master.”

Peter Watts, author of Blindsight said: Not since Middle Earth have I encountered such an intense and palpable evocation of an alien world. Sun of Suns puts the world-building exercises of classic Niven to shame.”

Paul McAuley says: “Schroeder’s deft alchemy fuses scrupulously detailed, mind-expanding world-building with unabashed, rip-roaring pulp adventure…”

For further reading check out Schroeder’s piece in Analog on “The Science Behind the Story: Sun of Suns“:

For a non-editorial review, check out Russ Allbery’s review of the book at (I found it very similar to my own feelings about the book – slow starting, didn’t really like the main character at first, and the setting: wheeled towns, pirates, and swashbuckling battles is not as much to my liking, and it’s not as intellectually compelling as Lady of Mazes, one of my Top Ten SF books):

Over all, I would give it 7.5/10, or maybe higher after reading the others in the trilogy – to see if it’s just a third of a book, or is a stand-alone, in which case it suffers, to me – too much time needed to set it up, and I’m not a pirate, ship-battle type – no Master and Commander for me. But I always enjoy a Schroeder book, simply because he can write – no matter what the subject, he finds ways to make it interesting to all readers, and his concepts can be mind-blowing, like in LoM.

So pick up a copy – I doubt you’ll be disappointed. If this review is at all-confusing, blame it on the book! : ) It is a complex idea, and one that is hard to describe, without giving away too much.


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