Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson
sbisson

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Under this metal sky: a Monday morning review of Karl Schroeder's Permanence

2002 is shaping up to be a bumper year for SF. Already we've had Swanwick's Bones of the Earth, now we have Karl Schroeder's third novel, Permanence.

Permanence is a far future space opera. A slower than light civilisation has meandered its way out from old Sol, supported by the nearly as fast as light cyclers that loop around the many brown dwarf stars that scatter the Galaxy. Immense Jupiters, brown dwarfs are the stars that never ignited, as they didn't have enough mass to support fusion. Instead, they radiate the infrared heat of their collapse, and provide more than enough energy to support life and civilisation. But the old co-operative Cycler Compact is collapsing, as a copyright mad Rights Empire expands out from Old Earth using new FTL ships that can only operate around "lit stars".

Rue Cassels is part of a dysfunctional hard-scrabble mining family in the decaying Erythion system. Abused, she runs from the family station to the heart of the system, in the hope of some sort of escape. She finds it, in the shape of a new mining claim in a system that's rapidly running out of accessible resources. But it's not what it seems, she's found a cycler that appears to be abandoned. What's more, it isn't human. And it's not old enough, either...

While it doesn't explicitly say it, Karl Schroeder's latest novel is an examination of that perennial problem for SF: the Fermi Paradox. If there are 400 billion stars in the galaxy, where is everyone else? Schroeder's innovative and intriguing novel raises the bar for everyone else exploring this mystery. The resulting story takes us out into the Rights Empire (a civilisation that controls what its citizens see through copyright controls and an overlaid virtual reality), to alien ruins and to a final understanding of the destiny of intelligence in the universe. We learn of the cult of Permanence and its relationship with the archaeologists of the Panspermia Institute. With a galaxy full of the ruins of long dead civilisations, and the only other intelligent space-fairing aliens either unwilling or unable to communicate with us, human civilisation is approaching a crux - one driven by the very nature of intelligence. Has it finally served its purpose, and are we destined to become beavers that build starships, or something else?

Rue's quest for control, for stability, drags her and her companions through the heart of conspiracies and of war, to an eventual acceptance of what is permanent, and what is not. As we reach the Schroeder's answers to the Fermi Paradox are intriguing. A modern writer, his is not the route of manifest destiny. Instead, it is one of compromise and acceptance. In the midst of despair there is hope for the Cycler Compact, and for humanity. Radical hard SF at its height, Permanence is an engrossing and stimulating read. If it gets a UK publisher, it's the sort of hard SF that stands an excellent chance of reaching the Clarke Award shortlist.

And Rue lives happily ever after, too...
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