One of the things that immediately strikes the reader of Schroeder's second science fiction novel, Permanence, is its classic science fiction style. Classic because it is reminiscent of 50s SF when exciting ideas were carried by strong storytelling that eschewed stylistic adornment. Yet far from being an anachronistic throwback that erases the innovations of SF's '60s New Wave, Schroeder's style implies that we have come full circle, and that the concepts introduced at science fiction's dawningłspace travel, aliens, and roboticsłhave been thoroughly absorbed by mainstream culture, both intellectually and emotionally. As a practitioner of "hard SF", a sub-genre of science fiction that rigorously obeys the known laws of science, Schroeder seeks to expand SF's boundaries through the incorporation of complex details of astronomy, physics and computer science, elements which require as much clarity as possible. Permanence benefits from this stylistic choice and is poised, from the very prologue, to lift off into science fiction's highest orbit of excellence. Schroeder embeds such concepts as brown dwarf stars in a narrative context that makes casual readers and hard SF fans alike feel that the extrapolated complexities of slower-than-light spaceship trade routes between the remote brown dwarf halo worlds of the Cycler Compact, for instance, are as logical as train schedules or traffic lights. Schroeder's scientific brushstrokes are impressive in his rendering of the environments of the three nations of brown dwarf star Erythrion, and of the ice caverns of Oculus, the terrible desolation of Dis, and the wonder of the double brown dwarf system Apophis and Osiris.
Schroeder further displays his SF flair with the concept of inscapeła type of Internet that links an individual's brain directly to data networksłand its disturbing implications, such as the "erasing" of aspects of reality that inscape programmers do not want a person to see. Schroeder's enticing description of the beauty of vacuum painting makes the reader long to see such a spectacular sight, and he tosses nanotech into the storyline as a matter of course.
Not only does Schroeder show himself adept at expressing the genre, he engages the genre itself in a masterful ordering of its internal issues. From its earliest days, science fiction was divided between truly speculative works, which extrapolated from the known laws of nature, and sensationalistic works whose scientific aspects were the thinnest veneer over traditional romance patterns. The latter, represented by the likes of Buck Rogers, was known as space opera. Modern variants, like Star Wars, have followed in this tradition and have, by some critics, been ousted from science fiction proper and termed science fantasy. Schroeder textually acknowledges the attractions of science fantasy, such as FTL travel (faster than light), but treats this as a form of scientific utopianism that is a symptom of a more serious problem. He foregrounds this conflict, which may seem to some merely a science fiction in-joke, in the struggle between the FTL worlds of the Rights Economy (R.E.) and the slower than light cycler ship travel of the halo worlds of the Cycler Compact.
This aspect of the story discloses considerable conceptual depth when Schroeder plays out the economic implications central to this notion of competing systems of space travel. At issue is the very concept of sustainable development, and Schroeder draws upon that nagging suspicion which everyone has but which is beaten down by the daily litany of stock market closings: namely, that an economic system which requires continual, infinite expansion in all areas, including "markets", can't possibly continue on a finite world.
While the populating of the galaxy would seem in itself a solution to this problem, Schroeder demonstrates that the internal contradiction of this economic approach will continue to cause suffering, regardless of its operating scale. Through Schroeder's Neoshinto priest, scientist and ex-rebel against the Rights Economy, Michael Bequith, the reader realizes that the R.E. is Schroeder's extrapolation from truly horrifying economic innovations practiced by actual corporations. If the adjective "horrifying" seems strong for business practices that include patenting plants and shutting down software by remote control for non-payment of royalties, consider, as Schroeder has done, their logical extension: the Rights Owners of Earth receive royalties from every transaction and every use of a product in the R.E. and they enforce this 'regime' through inscape implants in everyone's skull. While a rebellion does resist this economic structure, it simultaneously endangers billions, particularly those on planets whose environments are artificially sustained, and whose machinery will shut down if the Rights Owner inscape codes are tampered with. Any sudden economic shrinkage is deadly to an economy that sustains itself through growth. The resulting desperation of the R.E. as it confronts growth reversal magnifies the already cataclysmic effects of the rebellion. As Bequith is reminded, "An ecologically sustainable economy can't require surplusses. The R.E. does. So it has to keep growing to exist."
What distinguishes great SF from lesser exemplars of the genre is the successful combination of challenging concepts into a meaningful narrativełand this can only be accomplished through a Weltanschauung that has integrated various intellectual disciplines into a comprehensive whole. Schroeder's fiction is informed precisely by such a world view, one that seems to have been shaped to some degree by his Manitoba Mennonite background.
Fundamentally, Schroeder seems to have a Mennonite perspective that supporters of unrelenting progress sneer atła perspective Schroeder expresses in Permanence and bolsters with scientific explanations. It is this perspective which underlies the thinking of Schroeder's scientist character Laurent Herat, and which in part supports the view, currently attaining mainstream acceptance, that the limited use of technology and a harmonious co-existence with the environment is the wisest way for humans to live.
While all these strengths indicate that Permanence is a book which promises to establish itself as an SF great, it is not without noticeable textual flaws. There is occasional awkwardness in dialogue, with the result that characters seem unstable at times. The crucial relationship between main character Rue Cassels and her relative, Max, is established too quickly. The unpredictable Max is also a character whom Schroeder turns on and off at will. As a result, the climax of his relationship with Rue is emotionally weak. Other minor annoyances involve the overly fast and overly pat assembly of Rue's team and her decision to name the unidentified spaceship she discovers after the brother she hates. A larger problem follows: Schroeder skillfully arouses the reader's interest in the ship Rue has discovered. We follow Rue's effort to reach it and explore it with mounting interest only to have Schroeder cut away to an entirely new character, Bequith, who remarks on the fact that an alien ship was discovered and boarded by a certain Rue Cassels. Much of the suspense Schroeder was building is thereby wasted.
The fact that Schroeder does manage to rebuild the suspense by introducing the fascinating work of Herat and Bequith is a credit to his writing ability, though the reader can't help but feel jilted by the loss of the first encounter with the mysterious Other.
Norman Spinrad, a well-respected SF author and reviewer, greeted Schroeder's first solo novel, Ventus, as a "major work of science fiction by someone who therein clearly reveals the potential to evolve into a major writer." Does Permanence affirm Spinrad's appraisal? At the conceptual level, the novel is challenging and often awe-inspiring. Schroeder's storytelling skill is considerable, and he sweeps the reader along for majestic and powerful stretches. And yet the novel is occasionally nicked by editorial meteorites, scuffing up its gleaming hull and knocking it off-course just enough so that it misses SF's highest orbit. Nevertheless, Schroeder is on the way to realizing his full potential, and Permanence, like all good SF, offers us a good look at what is to come. ņ
Patrick Burger is the author of The Political Unconscious of the Fantasy Sub-Genre of Romance and a teacher at John Aboott College in QuTbec. His current work is entitled "Sun Goddess Falling".