Karl Schroeder's new novel, Sun of Suns is the first book in a thrilling new steampunk/ post-singularity/ space-opera trilogy that is the finest and weirdest worldbuilding I can remember reading.
Virga is a world made of a giant pressurized fullerene balloon with an artificial sun at its center. Its volume is full of weirdly medieval people, who are largely ignorant of the true nature of their world. They harvest wood from the trees that cling to asteroids and use the lumber to build ring-shaped settlements which they spin up with bicycles to create local gravity, which prevents them from atrophying into horrific, misshapen spindly monsters. They lash these together to make nation states, and light them with smaller artificial suns that they light by means of miniatures of the artificial sun, which they light by following a recipe whose origin is lost to fable.
They build navies of ships that ply the low-gravity spaces between the nations and they wage glorious, weird, amazing wars in those spaces, with kerosene-powered rockets and rifles and sabers.
Sun of Suns is an incomparable adventure story. The naval battles and swordfights alone are enough to justify the purchase price. But as we follow Hayden, the story's boy-hero (orphaned when his parents' guerrilla mini-sun was blown up by a conquering nation, raised by sky-pirates) through his involvement in an unlikely quest to save another nation from a tribe of marauders, we discover even stranger truths about the universe outside of Virga, a strange place where Artificial Reality, governed by post-Singularity beings, is the rule of the day and the universe lacks all rules.
That's what really carries this book -- the worldbuilding. I've known Karl since I was about 16 (we co-wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction in 2000) and I've never met a woolier, more imaginative, more audacious worldbuilder in all my time in the field.
This is just book one! There are two more to come -- I can't wait. Click below to read some excerpts that will give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
Hayden sighed and looked off into the dark. "Well, I hope you get a chance to see more of the world. It's not all like this out there." He smiled slyly. "There's...things in the dark, you know."
Martor looked alarmed. "I thought you said there wasn't!"
"Well, I've never seen anything. But you hear stories. Like the ones about the black suns. Ever heard of them?"
Martor's eyes had gone round.
"Pirate suns. They're small and weak, they only heat a few miles around them but it's enough for several towns to thrive. And they only shine through port-holes, to spotlight the towns and nothing else. Black suns, they call them, each one surrounded by the ships that the pirates have captured, in a could of wreckage that hides the glow of the town... They're migratory, like Rush, and they could be anywhere..."
And check this out:
"What is he?" Chaison gestured at the wraith who was walking and laughing with his wife. "Is he a real person?"
"Ah." Mahallan shrugged awkwardly. "Define 'real.' Max is a Chinese Room persona, which makes him as real as you or me." She saw his uncomprehending stare, and said, "There are many game-churches where the members of the congregation each take on the role of one component of a theoretical person's nervous system -- I might be the Vagus nerve, or some tiny neuron buried in the amygdala. My responsibility during my shift is to tap out my assigned rhythm on a networked finger-drum, depending on what rhythms and sounds are transmitted by my neural neighbors, who could be on the other side of the planet for all I --" She saw that his expression hadn't changed. "Anyway, all of the actions of all the congregation make a one-to-one model of a complete nervous system...a human brain, usually, though there are dog and cat churches, and even attempts at constructing trans-human godly beings. The signals all converge and are integrated in an artificial body. Max's body looks odd to you because his church is a manga church, not a human one, but hthere's people walking around on the street you'd never know were church-made."
Chaison shook his head. "So this Thrace is...a fake person?"
Aubri looked horrified. "Listen admiral, you must never say such a thing! He's real. Of course he's real. And you have to understand, the game-churches are an incredibly important part of our culture. They're an attempt to answer the ultimate questions: what is a person? Where does the soul lie? What is our responsibility to other people? You're not just tapping on a drum, you're helping to give rise to the moment-by-moment consciousness of a real person. To let down that responsibility could be murder."