Review: Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross

saturns-children

(Orbit 2008 ISBN 978-1-84149-567-5)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, August 2008)

  

In an ironic example of unplanned obsolescence, Freya Nakamura-47 is a mechanical fille de joie whose construction and tutelage is only completed a year after the last human breath is drawn.

Charles Stross is a British SF writer who’s previously tackled themes as diverse as online games, gorgons, and space opera.  Here, because someone obviously had to, he ploughs into the sorely-neglected subject of robot sex.

If the idea of robots having sex – with each other, mind, not with any humans, because however much Freya and some of her ilk might yearn for genuine human companionship, two hundred years into the future there just aren’t any more homo saps to rub up against – strikes you as a tad silly, you’re not alone.  I’ll confess I found it difficult to envisage a less promising precept for a serious volume of space opera, and Saturn’s Children certainly exhibits more than its fair share of silliness, from Freya’s dalliance with a nymphomaniac transport pod, to – to – well, you really only need to open any page at random to encounter a fresh slice of over-the-top rococo lust-robot craziness.  And yet the wonder of it is that, interspersed with all this robot-on-robot action, Stross has succeeded in crafting an intriguing and tense roller-coaster ride through the post-human solar system, from the cloud layers of Venus’s atmosphere to the frozen wastes of Eris.  There’s even an eminently satisfactory and plausible explanation for all the robots’ distinctly sentient-mammalian urges, aspirations, and fears.  And the casualness with which Freya relates the Earth’s demise – again, all too plausible – is distinctly chilling.

The story revolves around Freya’s struggle for survival once she succeeds in mortally insulting an aristo robot whom she encounters on Venus.  Stross devolves various competing elements of his Byzantine robot society, including the menacing, lethal servants of the Domina; the ambiguously-motivated Jeeves Corporation which takes it upon itself to acquire Freya’s talents; and Freya’s slain sister-clone Juliette, whose memories Freya has housed in her person and who was, at time of death, engaged in some mysterious and apparently highly illegal activity.  Does the fact of Juliette’s death hold a similar portent for Freya, who now finds herself required to follow Juliette’s trail wherever it may lead?

There are several appealing touches in Saturn’s Children, such as Freya’s ambivalence towards the biologic – she yearns desperately for a human companion, in accordance with her programming, but she also feels a distasteful squeamishness towards ‘pink goo’ (fauna) and ‘green goo’ (flora).  There’s Stross’s highly realistic renderings of interplanetary travel, of sixty-gee locomotion, and of the physics of slowtime (which helps pass the time on long voyages, but makes everything more messy because lubricant [not that sort of lubricant, get your mind out of the gutter] is effectively changed from a gel-like substance to a liquid runnier than water when viewed from the perspective of a clock speed one-fiftieth that of normal perception.)

If I have a quibble with this book, it’s that Stross tends to throw everything and the electronic kitchen sink into his plotting.  There’s a large number of plot twists, more than I’d say are probably optimal – it gets very difficult to keep track of the multiplying machinations of almost every individual robot with whom Freya comes into contact. But if you’re prepared to accept the mental challenge of trying to keep pace with the many misdirections and motivations of those whose paths intersect Freya’s headlong flight through a solar system which has been managing quite nicely, thank you, without human intervention for the past century or more, then I think you’ll find Stross’s offbeat and frequently off-colour narrative an amusing, intriguing diversion.

Stross can be found online at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/

 

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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