Charles Stross,
Iron Sunrise
(Ace, 2005)

A significant episode in Charles Darwin's famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle was his exploration of the Galapagos Islands. Here he noticed that individual islands of the group, because of their subtle differing habitats, possessed animals of a type specific to themselves. Thus, members of the same species, separated by an impenetrable barrier (the sea), evolved genetically in their own way. Of course, the type of evolution of most interest to humans is cultural (or "memetic") evolution. Would it not therefore be of interest to do a gigantic "Galapagos Islands" experiment and move human populations to "islands" and let cultural evolution do what it may?

This is exactly the universe in which Charles Stross's novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise are set. A machine intelligence has dispersed large populations of humans to different planets, leaving them alone with seed resources and technology. The people were given no choice in the matter, simply resettled en masse to new planetary homes.

Iron Sunrise is set three centuries after this initial event. After such dispersion, as might be expected, some cultures prospered, others grew, festered and died, and some grew, festered but did not die, in fact becoming virulent enough to want to spread themselves to other worlds.

One such culture, termed the ReMastered, is what's behind all the trouble in Iron Sunrise, the second novel in the series begun with Singularity Sky. Being dispersed among the stars has not altered humanity's less agreeable attributes -- such things as war, genocide and strategies of mutual assured destruction (but now with doomsday weapons aimed at neighbouring planets rather than continental landmasses), persist still.

The machine intelligence in question, known as the Eschaton, though godlike in power, nevertheless admonishes humankind not to worship it as a god. Another stricture is not to develop or use technology that manipulates time (as this could be a threat to the Eschaton itself). To police this command, the Eschaton takes an interest in human affairs. For example, a protagonist named Wednesday, age 12, discovers she has an invisible friend who speaks to her through her neural communication implants. The narrative follows Wednesday as, at age 16, she is drawn into a conspiracy that results in the destruction of a star and its inhabited planet.

It is the aftermath of this catastrophe that also brings two characters from the previous book, Rachael Mansour and her husband Martin Springfield, into the frame. Another player is the villainous member of the ReMastered, U. Portia Hoechst, who has a "smile as wide as a shark's gape." The ReMastered have ambitions to destroy the Eschaton while Rachel and Earth's UN wish to keep the peace.

These and others participate in a fast-paced space opera, with plenty of high technology and weaponry on display. One of the characters, a journalist, describes himself as writing "take no prisoners" prose. As expected of a novel of this genre the prose often, particularly in action sequences, takes on this same characteristic. However, in this regard the author's range is by no means limited. For example, here a space station (Old Newfie) orbits a destroyed star (Moscow Prime):

... the gigantic stacked wagon wheels of Old Newfie spinning in stately splendour before the wounded eye socket of eternity, a red-rimmed hollow gouged from the interstellar void by the explosion of Moscow Prime ..."

Like much SF, this novel asks readers as a by-the-way to take a hard look at something so ubiquitous in their world that it often remains unexamined. Here religion and the religious impulse get the treatment, as does the concept of narrow exclusive nationalism. Thus, the repulsive ReMastered await the "unborn god" (consequently in battle they echo the 13th-century crusaders cry of "Kill them all. God will know his own"), and at death administer a bizarre technological "last rites," accompanied by prayers, in order to capture a "soul."

For those who like categories, Iron Sunrise is hard SF; i.e., it is set in a logically consistent universe where the protagonists (including the godlike Eschaton) are constrained by the laws of physics regardless of how well or deeply these laws are known and understood. This SF novel is certainly worth your time.

by Conor O'Connor
13 January 2007

Buy it from