In The Armchair

The Virga Series by Karl Schroeder

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 30, 2010

It’s certainly not deliberate, but I tend to read similar science fiction novels at around the same time.  Perhaps it’s because of the kinds of searches I do to try to find interesting books.  My latest excursions have been the Virga series by Karl Schroeder, and the Ragamuffin-Crystal Rain series by Tobias Bucknell.  This post is about the former series.

You can classify sci-fi writing in various ways.  The subject matter can be described using overlapping subgenres like steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, post-apocalyptic, humour and alien encounters.   Hard and soft science fiction refer to the scientific plausibility.   One of the less-popular genres is that of world-building.  There are several good books in this genre.  Clarke’s Rama, Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia, Niven’s Ringworld are among those I’ve read.  Right up there with the best of hard world-building sci fi is Karl Schroeder’s Virga series, which has a bit of many of the genres described above mixed in.

I’ve read the first four of the Virga books.  I’ll completely avoid describing the world that Schroeder built.  Here’s why.  When I read the first novel, Sun of Suns, I had no background on the Virga universe. This led to a great deal of confusion initially, since the laws and functioning of the world were unusual and unknown.  Clarity came slowly, with an understanding of the physics and laws of Virga. Concepts that seemed odd, unlikely or silly began to make perfect sense.  This is quite common in many science fiction books, and it adds a lot to the experience.  I’d recommend that anyone else planning to read the books in this series approach it the same way: don’t read too many reviews, just go by the rating on Amazon etc. if you need to be convinced that it’s a good sci-fi series, and plunge in. It’ll be an interesting ride.

One of the things I’ve been lamenting in recent sci-fi is the sacrifice of storytelling on the altar of ideation. A lot of recent authors have brilliant ideas, but their novels feel simply like vehicles for outpourings of their ideas. Storytelling seems cursory and irrelevant. Stories are wrapped up without a real ending, seemingly either because an editor somewhere decides they are getting too long, or the author finished conveying his ideas and was too bored to bother with any more work. The Virga novels don’t suffer from this. They’re well-plotted.  The story in these books hurtles forward in a series of action-filled, high-energy encounters that take place in amazingly innovative scenarios.  The science supports the story.  The little details add to the atmosphere, and don’t distract from it.  Overall, these stories have pretty good pacing.  There are occasional stutters: pacing can be a tad inconsistent, and they have a few dead spots where the story drags. But this only happens occasionally.

The true reward in reading these books is the world that Schroeder has created. Starting from the basic premise of a devolved society in a world without gravity (why such a world would exist is explained in the course of the series), Schroeder uses nothing more than the laws of physics and his imagination to come up with plausible ideas for human artifacts and societies that are quaint and whimsical yet solidly grounded in science; swashbuckling and rollicking yet paying great attention to detail.  Elements of steampunk and high seas pirate adventures are mixed in very holistically; all of the various aspects quite obviously flow from Schroeder’s fundamental premises. At no point did I feel that a notion or an idea that was in spirit different from the rest was tacked on.

The four books don’t tell a single story, although they should be read in order.  They have a common feel, but are slightly different in the type of story they tell.  The first one is a bit of an introduction: it describes the emotional and cultural gestalt of the world and culminates in an event that sets the stage for events in the rest of the books. The second book, Queen of Candesce, is the fastest paced (and to me, the most enjoyable) of the lot, with a little bit of political intrigue. The third book was slightly uneven, although it had some soaringly creative highlights. The fourth is the most daring book, providing Final Explanations of various things that go on in Virga, and even — for the first time — leaving Virga entirely.

Highly recommended!


2 Responses

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  1. bekaarbokbok said, on September 12, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    About sacrificing plot for ideation – I’d say the champion is Greg Egan.
    The guy has great ideas, but his books always leave a highly insipid taste in the midn afterwards.

  2. Armchair Guy said, on September 13, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Agreed! My favourite Egan book is Diaspora, which is superdense on ideas. The story– Egan doesn’t even bother with such a thing.

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