Iron Sunrise

Posted by : atcampbell | On : July 19, 2005

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

(More details of the discussion that involve minor spoilers, can be found here.)

The human angle

One reader liked that this book drives a point home that you can’t assume anything about people’s motivations. Especially when the people in question are very alien, living in a society that’s very dissimilar to your own. He thinks this novel is a lot about how much the human mind projects order and organization where there is none. How much of it is about ascribing motivation where none exists. And the novel teaches you not to do it.

For example, Herman is supposedly Wednesday’s friend, but he is a direct representative of Eschaton, so he does not necessarily have any human motivations, and Wednesday’s well-being is probably not a high priority for him. Then again, as somebody pointed out, if Herman’s gonna work with humans, he has to have some sort of understanding, empathy…

Another reader found the multiplying plot twists tiresome. It was hard to keep up with so many twists, he said. Oh, we’re in favor of these people! Oh, wait, watch out for those people. Oh, we knew those people were really bad. But they’re really bad for a different reason than we thought. Etc.

Some readers took to heart the warning Stross sends out to the humankind in the form of the ReMastered. They argued it wouldn’t be difficult for our society to degenerate into something like the ReMastered dictatorship with its mind control. It would start slowly: we might like to prevent rapists from raping, murderers from murdering, and then it would creep up on humanity. One discussion participant said: the ability to manipulate motivations, either consciously or unconsciously, is an incredibly scary concept, and yet there is every evidence that somebody is trying to do it, in the form of neural marketing. He could see the ReMastered as a logical extension of technology that was capable of manipulating us for the sake of getting us to buy things, or to preclude antisocial tendencies in people’s brains (rape, murder, etc.). He thinks it wasn’t necessarily a fundamental evilness that got them to that evil point. It could have just crept into their system.

On writing style / language

A few people were amused by the bomb squad scene at the beginning of the book. Someone said it had some of the best language in the book. “Your basic landlord-tenant fracas with a [radioactive fallout] plume!” Overall, Stross’ writing style in this book was compared to the sizzling, flashy language of Bill Gibson at his best, though the same person thought the plot and the treatment of ideas was mediocre.

Everybody agreed that the scene in the beginning where a supernova explodes and a solar system is destroyed was very impressive, from both scientific and humanitarian angle. And the title, Iron Sunrise, is a beautiful metaphor.

Science / technology angle

“Iron Sunrise” provoked a long discussion about how time and causality work. Somebody remarked that the idea of causality violation is not well explored in the book: “He opens so many doors, but he only explores a couple of them”. How does timeline modification work? The common paradoxes of time travel were left unaddressed in this book. When Eschaton goes back and changes the past, or takes some action to prevent an unpleasant future from happening, how does he know he’s got to take that action, because it’s not gonna happen now? If causality can be violated, then there’s no causality, then it would follow that there’s no need for the Eschaton to try to change the past.

Several people agreed Eschaton didn’t really know the future. He had blind spots. Some reader remembered that Herman said at some point that there might be an Eschaton-equivalent superhuman intelligence working through the ReMastered, but it was a throwaway thought that was not followed up on in the book. Another reader thought the author’s view of time travel involves multiple branching timelines, which would resolve the standar time-travel paradoxes. Eschaton just tries to make sure that each of the possible existing time branches would lead to the same ultimate result at some point in the future, but he doesn’t care which of those branches actually ends up being “real”.

A discussion ensued as to whether Charles Stross really meant there were branching timelines, until somebody said there is a statement in the book “in this timeline”, which gives you the impression that Eschaton is monitoring more than one timeline.

Another scientific theme discussion participants had doubts about was the ReMastered mind wipe technology. Some readers found its various aspects inconsistent with one another. But it was a pretty minor quibble. Overall, most people (including a reader who has very high standards for such things) agreed that Stross used science/technology in this story very skillfully. The reader with extra-high standards was impressed with how Stross explored the economical implications of quantum entanglement-driven communication. This technology is very expensive because you have to ship the entangled quantum dots to different places at a slower-than-light speed in order to use them later for instantaneous communication. I thought that for all the marvelous technological achievements of the future in which “Iron Sunrise” is set, its world still looked surprisingly similar to ours. Technology had not transformed the novel’s world as much as it should have. For example, there is “smart” matter, that can take on properties user wants, or configure itself into shapes and structures user wants, but the characters of “Iron Sunrise” don’t use it for much more than to modify their clothes (even then, only Wednesday does that). A related idea — a nanofabricator, or cornucopia — was used spectacularly by Rachel in “Singularity Sky”, but she or any other character did not have a chance to play with it much in the “Iron Sunrise”. I personally believe that smart, configurable matter has such revolutionary implications that the world where it was prevalent would not look anything like the one we recognize. From that perspective, the world of “Iron Sunrise” looks kinda mundane and too familiar. Essentially its inhabitants live like us except that they have some neat gadgets and are able to read e-mail in their retinas. 🙂

Other book group members pointed out that if a writer wrote a book so removed from our everyday experience, we wouldn’t know how to read it. If you write something that is really wild like the future might be, how do you interact or engage with that if nothing that you’re reading makes any sense to you? Or, as somebody put it, the problem with the aliens is that they’re alien.

Elze Hamilton