It never ceases to amaze me. Science fiction, I am told, is a literary genre in crisis. Nothing is selling. The racks are being taken over by swarms of cookie-cutter urban fantasies, with no end in sight. Those books don't even seem to be trying for any degree of distinction or originality, yet they're flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, over in the poor, ignored realm of SF, all bets are off, creativity is exploding and the skies — no, the edges of the universe and beyond — are the limit. Kay Kenyon imagines an artificial pocket universe that is devouring our own for energy. Pete Hamilton offers a telepathic Void that seeks to draw humanity into its clutches, for reasons unfathomable. Warren Hammond and Richard Morgan are resurfacing the landscape of future noir with extra grit. And here's Karl Schroeder, delivering thrilling pirate adventure deep inside a remote space habitat, an air-filled fullerine bubble 5000 miles across, packed with floating oceans and icebergs, spinning-wheel nations, feathered fish and synthetic suns.
With all that on offer, can you look me in the eye and tell me you'd rather just read "Hello, my name is Mary Sue, the paranormal investigator, and my boyfriend is a vampire, tee hee"? I mean, your mama didn't raise no idjits, did she?
Karl Schroeder's hard SF saga Virga is simply electric with imagination. Conceptually, Virga is the equal of Larry Niven's Ringworld, with the added bonus that, unlike Ringworld, the concept doesn't overpower the novel's plot. The plot here is an explosive, rousing, action-packed spectacle that fully owns up to its reliance on tried and true adventure tropes (protag Hayden Griffin is a quintessential callow-youth everyhero from the Campbell/Skywalker school) while energetically staging them all in an awe-inspiring world both unique and scientifically credible.
Young Hayden is burning with vengeful wrath over the invasion of his home nation, Aerie; the death of his parents; and the destruction of their sun, the building of which his mother was supervising. All of this was the doing of rogue nation Slipstream, a powerful trading center unwilling to tolerate a tiny upstart with ideas above its station, like, oh, building their own sun. Upon reaching adulthood, Hayden has wangled his way into the crew of Admiral Chaison Fanning, who leads Slipstream's navy (air force?). But Hayden's inchoate plans to assassinate Chaison are repeatedly frustrated by several factors, not the least of which is that Hayden has come to the attention of Chaison's femme fatale wife, Venera.
War is in the offing between Slipstream and its rival nations, Falcon Formation and Mavery. Chaison promptly launches his fleet on a secret mission out to the distant edges of Virga, the icy hinterlands of its winter where no suns burn, and even the light of Virga's central sun Candesce is a faint and lonely glow. The goal, we learn, is a lost and legendary pirate hoard which Chaison swears really exists, and which is rumored to contain one item in particular that would grant unimaginable power to whomever possesses it. Yes, this sounds for all the world like the plot of a thousand epic fantasies, and it is. But when an author with imagination to burn can reset these familiar scenes on such a new and jaw-dropping stage as this, you begin to realize just how much life is left in those creaky old legends after all.
There's nothing in Virga that doesn't dazzle. From the cylindrical spinning nations that float deep within its interior, to the iceberg-encrusted outer skin of the habitat itself; to the airborne forests that grow out of free-floating lumps of soil; to the pirate fleets that the Slipstreamers do battle with among floating oceans and bergs — I haven't encountered a world in SF that conjures up such sense-of-wonder overload since Ringworld itself, with the possible exception of Kay Kenyon's Entire.
On second thought, it might be the case that Schroeder's world-building does overwhelm some aspects of his story. For one thing, as likable as Hayden is, and as sympathetic as his character arc (he eventually must come to terms with whether or not the people he's always thought were his enemies are as irredeemably evil as his lust for revenge required him to believe) makes him, the truth is that as a character he's completely upstaged by the story's putative villains, Chaison and Venera Fanning. Venera particularly is just the baddest bad girl, maybe too arch in her Cruella deVille-ness at times, but irresistible because of it all the same. And it's Chaison, not Hayden, who gets the kickass heroic moment at the book's climax. Even Aubri Mahallan, the Fannings' engineer and Hayden's love interest (with some secrets of her own), inhabits the story with more authority than Hayden.
But these are minor matters in a story that's among the more exhilarating actioners the genre has seen in ages. Frankly, you're welcome to all the vampires and werewolves you can handle. Just don't forget that you can always pay a visit to Virga, provided you're ready to fly.