Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross
Orbit, 2005, Hardback, 419pp, 15.99
ISBN 1-84149-335-X

See also my review of Missile Gap and The Jennifer Morgue 

Iron Sunrise is the sequel to Singularity Sky, but it’s worth noting from the start that rather like, say, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels, you don’t have to read them in order; you don’t, in fact, need to read Singularity Sky at all and can still thoroughly enjoy Iron Sunrise. I don’t recommend that you do this, mainly because Iron Sunrise is a highly enjoyable book in its own right. Stross has made significant concessions to readers who’ve just joined him, however, and there are pocket guides to previous events contained herein.

There are other similarities to the Stainless Steel Rat (specifically The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge and The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You) since Iron Sunrise features a similarly chilling group of undeniably bad guys, the ReMastered, working behind the scenes and following a strange, secretive dogma towards galactic domination, just like the Grey Men in Harrison’s books. Fortunately, although we have no Slippery Jim DiGriz, we do have Rachel Mansour, agent of Earth’s United Nations, and her husband Martin Springfield, sometime agent of the godlike (but definitely not God) Eschaton - both familiar from Singularity Sky.

The agreeable, if rather dull, world of New Moscow has been reduced to a cinder, all of its population killed after the sun unexpectedly goes nova. It turns out that this event was deliberate, if inexplicable. Even worse, in an apparently not uncommon 24th-century equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction, New Moscow’s defences have launched a fleet of almost entirely undetectable slower-than-light missiles towards the presumed culprit, the rather less agreeable or dull planet of New Dresden in a neighbouring star system, whose inhabitants, it must be admitted, were in the middle of a trade dispute with New Moscow. In less than a quarter of a century, in a now somewhat pointless gesture of vengeance, the New Moscow missiles will pulverise New Dresden.

The only way to stop the missiles is to convince at least three of New Moscow’s remaining diplomats to send an abort code to the missiles. It rapidly becomes clear that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem, however, after Wednesday Shadowmist, a teenaged survivor from an outlying New Moscow space habitat, has discovered some decidedly odd and definitely incriminating documents just before the habitat is evacuated and destroyed. Somebody doesn’t want these documents to be seen and is going to some pains to make sure Wednesday – and anyone she knows - quickly becomes an ex-survivor. The race is on to reach the surviving diplomats, stop the missiles, save Wednesday and her evidence, figure out just who the hell destroyed New Moscow and why, and what the ReMastered are up to…

I don’t think it’s any secret that Charles Stross is a very fine writer, and an exceptionally clever fellow too. Iron Sunrise showcases both these achievements rather well – the broken sequences depicting the death of New Moscow are stunning in their slow-motion depiction of an unmitigated holocaust, all the more so for being such a discordant mixture of big, cold science, spiked with the occasional moment of tiny human pathos. Stross still hasn’t quite mastered the depiction of human relationships: Wednesday’s relationship with the reporter/warblogger Frank the Nose rings, at times, rather false, and I’m still not sure I believe in the dynamics of ReMastered society – it’s just too horrid to accept – but Stross is getting better at it.

He can, when he wants, rival Egan for psychotically uncompromising and difficult scientific explainorising (as George W. Bush might say), but he usually has more irony, warmth and comedy in his writing (a favourite target of his, not missed here, is bureaucracy). There are noticeably fewer mountainous infodumps to digest in Iron Sunrise, but that’s because most of them were dispensed, relatively painlessly, in Singularity Sky. That said, I actually rather enjoy many of these digressions in Stross’s work, although they can at times be head-splittingly hard work (the prosecution would draw your attention to his short story ‘The Concrete Jungle’, m’lud). These particular books are Stross in a noticeably ‘fun’ mode; still with enough hard science to make perhaps the less experienced sf reader wince, but nothing too head spinning for the average Vector reader.

Iron Sunrise is up for a Hugo for Best Novel, part of an all-British list of nominees. I hope it’s not too much of a put-down to say that, having read the other nominees, I wouldn’t give this book the Hugo, but that’s only because of the quite astonishing strength of this year’s list (he says, waving his Union Jack). Any other year I think Iron Sunrise would have been in with a damn fine chance; as it is I’ll be very much looking forward to the next book in this series.

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