In 2003’s Singularity Sky, Charles Stross introduces us to a post-singularity universe, where a hivemind spaceship drops mobile phones to the citizens of a technologically-repressed planet. He jabs, he winks, he plays with tropes, and spouts his wisdom through the forms of Rachel and Martin, two undercover spies who get involved in related hijinks.
In Iron Sunrise, Stross returns us to the same universe, but this time he is darker, less jokey, and plays it slightly more subtle, although he still delivers a humdrum science fiction spy story supported by the two-dimensional Rachel and Martin, but this time starring a snarky teen techno-goth girl and rough-around-edges warblogger.
In four strands that eventually intertwine, our characters investigate the mysterious obliteration of New Moscow, the planetary home of 16-year-old Victoria “Wednesday” Strowger. Wednesday’s family escapes the blast, only to be murdered later while she’s at a party. Wednesday’s reliable, but invisible friend, Herman, helps her escape the planet by starship, where her path eventually collides with warblogger Frank, and special agent Rachel Mansour, recently assigned to investigate the bombing of New Moscow. The team must put this puzzle together amid bombs, brawls, and backlash from what is basically the Aryan Borg.
Characterization might be the only thing that stands out in this blasé plot, and even that has problems. Tough and sexy Rachel Mansour is now married to ship tech/Singularity errand boy Martin, and thereby loses some of her edge, because “the only thing she was really afraid of was losing him again” (loc. 976). But she still relies on her classic clever-by-way-of-using-her-sexuality-to-confuse-the-bad-guys moves, this time by getting naked and stroking off a syphilitic Idi Amin wannabe. She saves the day, so thank goodness she knows how to make her nipples harden at will. With female opponents, her tactics are different, as she prefers verbal sparring and the occasional down-and-dirty catfight. “Rachel reached out, picked Madam Chairman up by her elbows, and deposited her on the conference table in a howl of outrage and a flurry of silk skirts. ‘Stick to minding your desk,’” she says (loc. 622).
Wednesday is a bit more interesting and developed, naturally closed off after the catastrophe that destroyed her home planet, although the sudden murders of her family—likely due to something she did—fail to emit much emotion beyond the occasional narrative reminder and a cry or two. Fortunately, warblogger Frank is around to take her into his big, burly arms and romance her away from such distractions.
Herman, the AI executive of the (probably) Singularity, is the most intriguing of all of the characters, but just like last time, he gets little page time and remains the greatest mystery of the story, even after he finally tells all.
And then there’s Martin. The everyman who belongs anywhere but here. I’m sure that’s the point of him, but he is water in an already thin broth.
It is standard sci-fi fare, a spy vs. Singularity of sorts that might interest readers who are new to these tropes. Fun concepts like uplifted Robocop dogs, the cornucopia machine, and Herman as a secret fairy podfather* add energy to this tale, but they’re not enough to explain the popularity of this series in 2003 and 2004, when these were far from new ideas. Emotional depth is clearly not the goal of this story, but the power of catastrophic loss in a post-singularity universe is deflated when combined with a stale spy story laden with unimaginative terrorist stereotypes and the occasional jokey STEM reference.
*Word play inspired by Nikki, thank you very much.