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Book cover art by Danilo Ducak (left).
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Iron Sunrise is a book that outdoes the achievements of Stross's heavily hyped and Hugo-shortlisted debut Singularity Sky in just about every particular. This is contemporary space opera at its most unapologetically entertaining, evoking the best attributes of both old-school and cutting-edge storytelling to provide a fun-as-all-git-out read from cover to cover. Gone is the lazy attention to character development that hampered the previous volume. Here, even the archetypal characters are turned into something approximating believable people. And Stross has a better handle on his sense of humor, too. Scenes in Singularity where awkwardly placed humor sometimes hamstrung a scene's plausibility have been replaced by smooth insertions of wit into the narrative at places where it will best serve the story. In other words, Stross has gotten better, which is what you always want to say about writers any time a new book of theirs is released. If Stross continues at this trajectory my only worry is that he could reach critical mass too soon.

Some might argue that the plot of Iron Sunrise has less originality going for it than that of Singularity Sky, and there's something to that. Singularity, which opened with the unbeatable, surreal image of telephones falling from the sky of an undeveloped world, was such an explosion of envelope-pushing ideas that it was all Stross could do to weave a sufficiently cogent story to contain all of them. Iron Sunrise, in contrast, is a leaner piece of work that follows some storytelling paths that fans of political intrigue and spy novels will find well-trodden. But what Iron Sunrise might lack in uniqueness it more than makes up for in every other department; it moves like a bullet train, it's just convoluted enough to avoid confusing the crap out of you, and among its heroes is an attitude-heavy teenage chick on whose shoulders the fates of several worlds rest. What's not to like?

Stross includes enough of the backstory that informed Singularity Sky — the history of the nearly godlike AI the Eschaton, how it transported 90% of the human race to different worlds scattered throughout the galaxy by means still unknown, and how it put in place strict rules against creating any technologies that could possibly effect causality and thus threaten its own existence — to make new readers feel in a safe position to forge right ahead. Iron Sunrise tells of the destruction of a star, which wipes out an entire colony world called Moscow, by just such a technology. The few surviving Muscovites (there's actually nothing about their culture that's Marxist, in case you think Stross is veering a little too far into MacLeod's territory), living on other worlds or space stations, place the blame on rival colony New Dresden and have launched some WMD's in their direction which will do for their planet almost as handily.

But it appears New Dresden aren't the culprits after all, and only the Eschaton can get the word out before another innocent world comes to a bad end. Toward this end he has disaffected rebel teenager Wednesday locate evidence, foolishly left behind so that it can be found for the purposes of setting a plot in motion, that proves four-square the real killers are the ReMastered, a scary gang of enhanced Nazi-esque übermensch who like to do things like conquer planets, suck people's minds out, and throw everyone they don't kill into brutal concentration camps. (Specifically, it's one ReMastered leader who's gone rogue, which makes him even worse than the rest of them.) The ReMastered are working on causality violating weapons — and Moscow's star was destroyed accidentally during the testing of one.

Coming to Wednesday's aid are Rachel Mansour, heroine of the previous novel who still works as an UN operative based on Earth, and Frank, a journalist "warblogger" who has himself done time in one of the ReMastered's camps and has a few unpleasant memories as a result. Wednesday manages to stay barely one step ahead of the ReMastered's assassins while Rachel does her best to persuade Moscow's few remaining diplomats to issue the recall codes on their weapons. But the ReMastered's hit men are also taking out the Muscovite ambassadors one by one.

Immediately there are plot logic questions you can throw out like confetti. Why would the Eschaton use, as his tool, a petulant teenage brat with no real means to defend herself rather than directly contact the people who are in a position to stop the ReMastered? Because it's more fun, that's why! After all, isn't it cooler to tweak the nose of the whole "saviour" concept by making one a bratty teener as opposed to some insufferably solemn and pious wanker? And you get to have exciting chases. Who doesn't like a good "hide in the air ducts" scene? Iron Sunrise gets away with its little storytelling peccadilloes because it's Stross's love letter to the kinds of popcorn-munching escapism we all enjoy even when we're embarrassed to admit it. The damn thing is like a manga in prose. It never stops, and takes itself only as seriously as it needs to to keep you entertained.

Some folks might think Stross goes a little overboard near the end, when he has one of the villians go all postmodern and start making meta-references to the very genre clichés he's riffing on. And there were one or two bits that gave me a little too strong as sense of '80s/Gibson/Sterling deja vu. But I never thought Stross let his story get away from him, which should always be the first concern of any writer, no matter how ironic or satirical or knowingly self-referential they're trying to be. Iron Sunrise, before it does anything else, works as a spectacularly enjoyable space opera first. And that bodes well for the many stories Stross has yet to tell.