Crowdsourcing Leads to Madness In "The Sunless Countries"S

Karl Schroeder, author of Pirate Sun, is a master at writing crazy, swashbuckling adventures in strange worlds - then making you think. His latest, The Sunless Countries, balances breathtaking worldbuilding with an intriguing critique of "the wisdom of crowds."

Spoilers ahead.

The Sunless Countries is the fourth novel that Schroeder has set in the world of Virga, a network of atmosphere bubbles roughly in orbit around the Vega star system. Built long ago by a group of technologically-advanced humans, these bubbles each contain their own unique ecosystems and cultures. The novels focus on the steampunk-style world of Virga, a blob of Earth atmosphere about 3,000 miles in diameter, filled with several "suns" for light and heat, as well as giant spinning cylinders that provide gravity to people who live on the inner walls. Chunks of earth and blobs of water float through the sphere, providing weather and farmland. Fauna "swim" through the air.

Virga's main sun, Candesce, is also a defensive weapon: It radiates a field that prevents the use of computer technology and "artificial nature. So Virga's inhabitants live by analog alone, zooming around with steam and and battery-powered ships. Some of them live in sunny areas, and others live in "the sunless countries" of the book's title, near the outer skin of the atmosphere bubble in a state of perpetual darkness.

Other books in the series have dealt with rebels who want to build their own suns, and the political machinations of the great nations near the center of Virga. But The Sunless Countries is a standalone adventure that takes place at the periphery of everything: In a history department at a university in the sunless nation of Sere. Specifically, it concerns the strange adventures of a rebellious history researcher named Leal who is caught up in an ideological battle against intellectuals within her own nation - as well as a battle against all of humanity being waged by mysterious creatures from beyond Virga's skin.

The book is also, as Schroeder put it to me in an interview (which I'll post tomorrow!), his attempt to do a version of Bridget Jones' Diary. Which means that Leal has to deal with her young-adult libido on top of everything else.

Leal has just gotten word that an unqualified but acceptably conservative historian has been promoted to professor over her, and she thinks that's her biggest problem. Until the infamous sun-building hero Hayden Griffin arrives in town on a secret mission. Then Leal has a freaky, unexpected encounter when she gets lost in her ship late at night - she hears a huge voice coming out of the darkness, claiming to have a message. Suddenly, her problems in the history department start to seem relatively insignificant. But her historian powers become crucial to Hayden's mission (ah - the handsome, unreachable Hayden). Leal has access to several forbidden books from early in Virga's history that may explain why she heard that voice, and what caused the disappearance of Sere's fleet along with several small cities.

While Leal and Hayden try to solve the mystery of the voice, Leal's nation of Sere undergoes a terrible coup. The "Eternists" take control of government, and burn down huge parts of the university because the professors there have challenged the Eternists' belief that Virga comprises the entire universe and has existed throughout time. The Eternists are also fanatical believers in the wisdom of crowds, and preach that truth can only be discovered when everybody votes on what is true. So every schoolbook and article in the newspaper is accompanied by a poll so people can vote on their "accuracy." People who don't vote are punished.

This whole subplot allows Schroeder to grapple with the dark side of democracy, where "the people" are permitted to govern all wisdom. It also pokes fun at the idea, popular among web pundits, that crowds provide the best answers to all questions. Schroeder's genius here is in speculating about an ideology that crosses something like a conservative Christian viewpoint with Web 2.0 dogma. And it feels like a sly, pointed critique of our own world when his characters, growing tired of the Eternists at last, start to admit that they don't want to vote on everything and that sometimes their opinions shouldn't count.

If there is a flaw in this novel, it's that Schroeder is trying to do too much at once. Leal and Hayden's adventure - where they learn that sometimes creatures who are not conscious make better friends than those who are - winds up feeling tacked-on. We care more about the fate of Sere than we do about this larger conflict over Virga itself. The final section of the novel is clearly leading up to a fifth novel in the Virga series (and indeed, Schroeder is working on that novel already), and it might have worked better to give us more closure on Sere's political battles than to open up an entirely new vista of ideas only to shut it down in media res.

Despite all that, The Sunless Countries is a rollicking good read. It's fun, bookish, and full of insane air battles that take place in a world without land. And the political thought experiments are as good as Schroeder's overarching scientific thought experiment about what it would be like to live in a world where you can have what amounts to a space battle using Newtonian physics.

The Sunless Countries via Borders