I don’t read as much sci-fi as I used to, so when I recently felt the pull of my inner otaku I turned to a good friend of mine who used to own a science fiction bookstore and groks the field like no one else. “I want something like Dune,” I said, referencing my favorite series of the genre. My friend thought a moment and then recommended two things. One was out-of-print (the great and terrible Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury, published in the UK as Geta) the other was the Virga series by Karl Schroeder.
Schroeder’s writing does not much resemble Herbert’s, nor do his characters or plot; where the Virga series does resemble Dune is in the world-building. Karl Schroeder’s Virga series is a brilliant piece of world-building. The novels are set in Virga, an artificial planet-sized balloon filled with gravity-free air, ocean-sized balls of water, tiny floating clumps of earth, and miniature man-made suns. With advanced technology suppressed by radiation from the central Sun of Suns, the people of Virga live preindustrial lives on spinning wheels, gear-towns, and giant cylinders using centrifugal force for gravity, or grow distorted and bird-like in free-fall. This setting is the most original and imaginative I’ve encountered and is logically consistent and well showcased. Virga has what I consider to be the hallmark of great science fiction: a unique and engaging conceit (be it setting, technology, alien life, etc.) that forms not just background or color, but the impetus and raison d^etre of the whole story.
The first book, Sun of Suns, is a fast-paced adventure story involving nations at war, pirates, and a hero seeking revenge for a conquered homeland. There is plenty of action, suspense, and reversals of fortune. There are also a few tantalizing glimpses of the truly bizarre far-future universe outside of Virga, which I suspect will become more important as the series continues. The characters are interesting and believable, the writing is good, and the ending is surprising and satisfying.
The second book, Queen of Candesce, is even better. For a sequel, the plot and characters are refreshingly different from its predecessor. The protagonist of QoC is Venera Fanning, an intriguing if unsympathetic secondary character from SoS. Here she is sympathetic (though still not heroic) as well as brilliant and ruthless. The novel’s setting is Spyre, an ancient metal cylinder nearly as old as Virga itself and home to a labyrinthine multitude of byzantine nations – many of them so tiny that they are contained within a single building! The plot is a fascinating mix of deception, plot, counterplot, action, and wacky political theory. Following the machinations of Venera and her enemies really did remind me of Frank Herbet’s Dune; it is a rare treat to read about smart people outsmarting other smart people.
There are two more Virga books: Pirate Sun, (available in hardcover) and The Sunless Countries (forthcoming). I am eagerly anticipating them both.
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