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Ashes of Candesce
Karl Schroeder
Tor, 432 pages

Ashes of Candesce
Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder was born in 1962 in Brandon, Manitoba. He moved to Toronto in 1986 to further his writing career. In 1996, he was elected president of SF Canada. His awards include the Context '89 Short Story contest for his story "The Cold Convergence" (then titled "Live Wire") and "The Toy Mill" won the 1993 Aurora award for best short work in English.

Karl Schroeder Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Sunless Countries
SF Site Review: Pirate Sun
SF Site Review: Queen of Candesce
SF Site Review: Lady of Mazes
SF Site Review: The Engine of Recall
SF Site Review: Permanence
SF Site Interview: Karl Schroeder
SF Site Review: Permanence
SF Site Review: Ventus
SF Site Review: Ventus

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

With Ashes of Candesce, Karl Schroeder brings his Virga series to a rousing, fitting conclusion. After four previous volumes that introduced us to the world of Virga and several of its inhabitants, Ashes of Candesce brings all the various plots and characters together, in ways that both play to and confound expectations. It's a good way to end a series that has not only featured wooden spaceships and artificial suns, but also worked in serious observations on evolution, the nature of intelligence, post-human morality, and just how humanity might survive in a galaxy gone wild.

For those new to the series, the world of Virga is encased in a large balloon, five thousand miles in diameter. There is an artificial sun at the center, and an oxygen atmosphere, allowing life in a freefall environment. Built by humans centuries earlier, Virga has become both a refuge and fortress for its inhabitants, many of whom have little or no idea as to how or why Virga was built.

Virga's artificial sun also emits a field that inhibits technology, with electronics as a dividing line -- printing presses, for example, will work, but computers won't. That keeps many of Virga's civilizations at a fairly basic technological level, and explains the wooden spaceships. It's also a defense against a threat from outside Virga known only as Artificial Nature.

The first four volumes in the series have explored various aspects of Virga and its inhabitants, establishing a cast of favorites and villains, although at least one character is an interesting mix of both, while parcelling out small clues about the nature of Virga itself and of the universe of which it is a part. By the time of Ashes of Candesce, the setting and its people are so well established that it seems in no way odd that two of the delegates to an important conference where the good guys are attempting to persuade everybody else that the bad guys are lying to them are an intelligent, fairly eloquent oak tree and a ceramic cougar. The oak tree is also incredibly dangerous.

In addition to telling a fast-paced story and engaging in some first-class world-building, Karl Schroeder is also exploring many of the ideas that have dominated hard science fiction for the last twenty years or so. The possibility and nature of post-human life, the capabilities and limits of artificial intelligence, and the substitution of virtual for actual reality are all part of the conversation. Schroeder also presents a criticism of the kinds of immortality conferred by the transfer of personality into a digital, virtual environment. Such an existence, observes one of the characters in Ashes of Candesce, leads to a loss of empathy, a disconnect from the human condition that results in an amoral approach to decisions and their consequences. And in Ashes of Candesce, the consequences of such amorality for the human characters are direct and personal.

Those themes place the Virga series and its author in the company of writers like Greg Egan, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, and others. That the story and character development never lags as a result makes the Virga series a first-class reading experience both for long term fans and anyone looking for a good introduction to the ideas, and artistry, of contemporary hard science fiction.

Copyright © 2012 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson fervently hopes that when oak trees do start talking, people remember the lessons of Artificial Nature. Greg's reviews have appeared in publications ranging from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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