Karl Schroeder's second novel, Permanence, starts in the tradition of a Heinlein juvenile, then takes off across the universe into the realms of Gregory Benford and Vernor Vinge. Schroeder has hidden a philosophical novel in action novel clothing. He uses flashy and fun conventional science fiction ideas like jaunts across the galaxy and meetings between aliens and humans to sneak in digs at overly strong copyright laws (the bad guys here are in the Rights Economy, where even looking at a piece of art will cost you!) and to consider the chances of humanity or other life surviving for millions of years.

Rue Cassels, an orphaned teenage girl living on a space station, is desperately trying to escape her violent older brother. By taking some very big chances, she gets away. On her way to meet some distantly related family members, she discovers an alien relic that is almost an impossibility: an ancient starship. This puts her in the middle of many machinations who wouldn't want a piece of an alien starship? and she must make quick decisions to save her skin. Schroeder isn't afraid to stagger the reader emotionally or intellectually, and the ratio of ideas to pages here is high enough to satisfy the curiosity of any science fiction reader. Permanence is a fast-paced, adventurous ride.

A planet-eating vacuum
Meanwhile, 20,000 years into a very different future, Hugo Award-winning author Greg Egan's latest novelSchild's Ladder takes us to the possible end of the universe as we know it. A highly controlled physics experiment has gone out of control and a new species of vacuum has been created. However, instead of collapsing as 15 years of experiments showed that it should the vacuum is growing and consuming everything in its path. Six hundred years later, two schools of thought (and action) have developed: the Yielders want to stop the vacuum's expansion if possible and study it without destroying it, while the preservationists want to stop it from destroying any more planets. This argument gets especially emotive when refugees from planets already subsumed by the vacuum get involved. Egan's fictions are often at the far edge of imagination and scientific extrapolation (references are given at the end of the book for the non-imaginary physics presented), but he manages to pull off the technical complexity without resorting to cardboard characters. Tchicaya and Mariama grew up on the same planet but haven't seen each other for hundreds of years. They meet on a ship positioned just in front of the expanding edge of the vacuum (which is moving at half light speed). Their childhood relationship informs their present day interactions, and, when push comes to shove and they have to rely upon one another, their early experiences override their other affiliations. Schild's Ladder is deeply imaginative science fiction and worth seeking out.

A fiery fantasy
It's a relief from the brain-stretching required by Egan's physics to turn to the pastoral landscape of Laurie Marks' Fire Logic . However, while easy to slip into, Fire Logic is definitely not a simplistic fantasy where one side is right and the other must be wrong; like real life, it is all about shades of gray. Zanja comes from a highland people who hold themselves happily apart from other nations. She is their avatar, sent out to communicate, trade and learn from the outside world. But the outside world is in turmoil: former refugees have armed themselves and are taking over. The countryside is soon a war zone, replete with horribly familiar acts of war and reprisals. Marks has a wide-angle view and has written an immensely political and unflinchingly optimistic novel. Differences are celebrated as often as scorned, and love can be found even with an enemy without the costs that might be expected in our world.

Fire Logic questions both the real magic behind faith and the self-selective blindness involved in following a leader: religious, military or political. Characters and story come together effortlessly even as Marks refuses to shy away from complex issues of self-determination, ownership and multicultural coexistence. Like Permanence, the action in Fire Logic is strong enough to push readers into thinking about similar themes in their own world which is as much as this satisfied reader could ask from any book.

Gavin Grant reads, writes and publishes science fiction in Brooklyn, New York.

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