31 August 2008

Locus Magazine's Russell Letson reviews Charles Stross

from Locus Magazine, August 2008

Saturn's Children, Charles Stross (Orbit 978-1-841-49567-5, £15.99, 400pp, hc) July 2008. (Ace 978-0-441-01594-8, $24.95, 393 pp, hc) July 2008. Cover by Joe Williamsen.

Charles Stross dedicates Saturn's Children to the memories of Asimov and Heinlein — so why did I keep thinking of Futurama and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? I don't think it's just the use of serious science-fictional tropes and furniture to get laughs (though the comic-parodic connection is certainly strong), nor even the projection of biological psychology (and even erotic behavior) onto mechanical entities. There's something very interesting going on in this book, genre-wise — and, of course, it's also engaging, ingenious, and thoughtful. And funny.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturn's Children is set in a future in which humans are extinct, leaving their machine creations in charge of a solar-system-wide civilization with a human-shaped void at its apex. From Mercury out to the Kuiper Belt and beyond, robots fill the niches previously occupied by their masters — not just the functional, keep-the-wheels-turning ones but the socio-economic and political ones as well. Thus there are not only robot miners and robot hod-carriers and robot spacecraft but robot luxury hotels and robot slums, robot bistros and robot dives, robo-hobos that ride the robot rails, and a robot aristocracy that holds robot soirées and engages in conspicuous resource consumption and robot snobbery. In fact, there is a whole robot economic hierarchy, complete with robot slaves and slave-owners.

And robot courtesans, which is simultaneously the job description and the curse of our narrator and protagonist, Freya Nakamichi-47. It's a curse because, as a mechanical woman designed to serve and service a vanished One True Love, Freya's occupation's gone. When we meet her, she is, not for the first time, contemplating suicide, and not for the first time she is distracted by a crisis, in this case assault and attempted murder (hers). Then she's off and running, first to escape the attentions of an offended and vengeful aristo and then (after a Perils-of-Pauline close encounter with a city-on-rails) as a courier/paid smuggler for the mysterious Jeeves Corporation (whose local reps emulate just who you think they would). Her mission takes her to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and finally all the way out to the Kuiper Belt, donning and discarding identities and disguises while she absorbs from a "soul chip" the memories and (eventually) the attitudes of one of her siblings, the more experienced and presumably now-defunct Juliette. What Freya is conveying is valuable, illegal, and dangerous enough to attract all kinds of unwanted attention, from the "Pink Police" (who track down and destroy unauthorized biological materials — "pink goo") to various shadowy rivals (the Black Talon? the Sleepless Cartel? the Ownership Confederation?) who would like to lay hands on the payload and discard the courier. In the course of her travels Freya is seduced, bushwacked, beaten, irradiated, kidnapped, enslaved, hornswoggled, and generally put-upon, all the while slowly figuring out who's on which side and how she's going to get out of the whole mess.

During this nonstop foreground action, questions of background pile up. How and why have robots kept operating after the disappearance of their human masters? Why do they continue to emulate human behavior? How closely can a sex robot mimic a human? In fact, why do they emulate human behavior, right down to the emotional level, at all? Stross gets around to all of these eventually, and clearly has a lot of fun rationalizing the various features of his all-too-human robots and the world-without-biology that they inhabit. Some of the operational and design factors are explained in familiar SF fashion, with talk about mechanocytes, chromatophores, chemotaxic receptors, neurone-emulation processors, and so on. This is the sound of a writer at play, and part of the game is piling homages to the ancestors and analogues of the novel's component parts: Asimov and Heinlein, of course (the Three Laws and "The Bicentennial Man"; Mycroft of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the erotified AI Minerva of Time Enough for Love, and Friday of Friday); Karel Capek's R.U.R.; Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy"; and Futurama's Bender and the rest of his tribe, who share humanity's foibles and carnal urges. Non-robotic references are scattered around as well, for example the Mercurian city-on-rails called Cinnabar, or Freya's variation on a famous Lararus Longism:

I'm a generalist, not a specialist. Why bother learning... how to design a building, or conn a boat, or balance accounts, or solve equations, or comfort the dying — when you can get other people to do all that for you in exchange for a blow job?

Interestingly enough, with all the elaborate and comically strained justifications for robotic emulation of human traits, the novel makes a point of detailing the difficulty, danger, and discomfort of space travel — it is, as Freya explains, "a truth universally acknowledged today, but bizarrely never admitted by any of my True Love's kind — that space travel is shit." The sentiment is repeated vehemently with every increasingly long voyage she has to make. And it was even worse for humans:

They were so badly designed for it that a couple of minutes' exposure to vacuum would have killed them irreversibly. To go up and beyond Earth's atmosphere required elaborate preparations, a complex portable biosphere — journeys of any duration necessitated elaborate and heavy radiation shielding. And that's before you consider all the other drawbacks.

As she observes later, "Our Creators were clearly insane. Sending canned primates to Mars was never going to end happily."

One of the book's driving issues, slavery, is no joke, and its resolution is tied to the final, most complete account of the making of a concubine robot and to various revelations about Freya's true nature and options and her relationship to the rest of her sibs and her template-matriarch. When I started reading Saturn's Children, I wondered what kind of science fiction I was getting myself into — as much as I like and respect the comic-booky, smartass approach of Futurama, I wasn't sure that the same kind of material would work in print. I'm happy to report that the book grabbed me (not without long reflections on SF-tropes-as-metaphors) and finally convinced me that, as with Futurama, there is heart as well as smarts behind the jokes.

Read more! This is one of two dozen books reviews from the August 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Monday, September 15, 2008 8:48:00 AM, Blogger Fred Kiesche said...

"...Cinnabar, or Freya's variation on a famous Lararus Longism..."

Lazarus, no?


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