Nitpicking Virga

in science fiction

I’m currently halfway through the third book of Karl Schroeder’s Virga pentalogy. This is a fantastically fun series if you make sure you switch your brain off before reading. There’s swashbuckling derring-do, ships of the line clashing, pirates, knaves and heroes, chivalry, conspiracies, secrets, betrayals and the odd, outright “fuck yeah!” moment.

All that said, I am going to take the time to poke some silly fun at the gaping plot holes. There will be massive spoilers. Proceed at your peril!

But why not…?

The overarching storyline that is starting to emerge at this point in my reading is that a posthuman conglom…entit…organizati…thing named Artificial Nature is trying to gain control of Virga, the titular location. There have only been a few hints given as to why AN wants Virga, but a best guess is that it wants to schlorp down all of the information and experiences of everyone in the airsphere and disseminate it as light entertainment elsewhere. That is my best guess, and I expect to be proven wrong when I further catch up on my reading. Why, however, is secondary. I want to pick at its how:


  • Virga is an airsphere orbiting the star [[Vega]]. An airsphere is a B.D.O., a giant balloon pumped full of atmosphere and populated with all manner of people, plants and animals. Iain Banks, Peter Hamilton and Dan Simmons have all used them at different sizes in their stories. Virga, at about 9000km in diameter, is probably the smallest. To help visualize Virga’s size, you should imagine a giant balloon about halfway between Mars and Venus in size.
  • Artificial Nature wants to take over Virga.
  • Artificial Nature is not afraid to use force.
  • Artificial Nature is implied to have boundless energy and material resources.
  • Artificial Nature, as the product of post-Singularity technologies is as unto a god for all practical purposes.
  • As a scale comparison, Virga was seemingly created by a ragged refugee group. This refugee group possessed resources that would beggar the entire technological and industrial infrastructure of our entire planet.
  • Either relativistic or FTL travel is both common and cheap: Virga has a “tourist station” in its skin where posthuman entities can come and gawp at the locals, enjoy the food and wine, take pictures and buy trinkets before they go home. This, to me, implies that the effort involved in visiting Virga from any point in civilized space is no more than the effort involved in going on a package holiday to South America.
  • The skin of Virga is in some way intelligent and can respond to and seal punctures without any independent instruction.
  • Artificial Nature is prevented from entering Virga by a kind of forcefield generated by the fusion engine complex at the centre of the airsphere. This forcefield subtly alters local spacetime in a manner that disrupts the function of electronic technologies.

In short: AN wants to conquer Virga. AN cannot conquer Virga because of a big machine in the middle of Virga. Therefore, AN’s goal is to destroy or disable the big machine in Virga.

Why not, I ask, just lob a relatavistic kill vehicle at the complex from a safe distance? It’s a kinetic weapon, a dumb piece of metal, travelling at x% of the speed of light. Simple answer: It would be a very short story indeed if anyone starts lobbing around munitions that are travelling at any percentage of the speed of light.

Ignore the “so-called” simple answer. A relativistic penetrater would breach the skin, cross the 4,500km in 0.00001501 of a second and destroy the complex. The side-effects would be devastating for the inhabitants, but Artificial Nature has shown that it could subsume the whole of Virga in a matter of hours – less time than it would take for anything really horrible to happen.

Yes there would be a megaton-yield release of energy and yes there would be high-velocity spall opposite the point of impact, but the job would be done!


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