Russell Letson reviews Charles Stross
Charles Stross has been working out the implications of a proposition that throws buckets of cold water in the face of the kind of expansive science-fictional adventure examined above – while still managing to make the whole project fun. Saturn’s Children: A Space Opera was an exercise in witty science-fictional rule-stretching, with a non-trivial sideline in pointing out why our dreams of filling space with our own biological kind might be very, very difficult to realize (technical description: ‘‘space travel is shit’’). That book’s proposition is that space travel and colonization are just too demanding, dangerous, and destructive for delicate meat-creatures such as original-equipment humankind to manage. Robots, however, can be hardened sufficiently to withstand the rigors of vacuum and radiation and can endure the long, long travel times imposed by the stunning distances involved. The fun part comes from the way Stross devises his robotkind to act as humanity’s successor species – to imagine them not as intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic but as very much like us, writ not large but as merely durable.
Neptune’s Brood takes place millennia later in the same future and bears the same subtitle, which is even more fitting this time, since it features, among other things, space pirates – or at least privateers. (The fact that the freebooters are an arm of an insurance company does not make them less scary, at least at first.) But to back up: in the thousands of years that separate the two books, robot-kind – or metahumans, to use the narrator’s own term – has established an interstellar civilization that is as varied and interconnected as anything depicted in the old pulp magazines, even if its citizens are non-biological. (We biological creatures, the Fragile, have been resurrected – and gone extinct – three times and remain objects of veneration of a creepy sort.) In fact, lack of a meat substrate is a feature rather than a bug, since bodily interstellar travel is not only slow but incredibly hazardous, even to hardened metahumans. Most star travel involves squirting one’s personality via laser beacon and installing it in a newly-constructed body at the destination. Sub-light starships do exist, but mainly as vastly expensive vessels designed to establish new colonies.
The whole interstellar socio-politico-economic machine is powered and coordinated by bankers and accountants, and even privateering insurance underwriters. Thus, it is appropriate that our narrator and protagonist, Krina Alizond-114, is ‘‘a scholar of the historiography of accountancy’’ with a special interest (practical as well as theoretical) in banking fraud in general and the long con in particular. While her ostensible reason for traveling combines a scholarly pilgrimage with a search for her missing sibling, the real reason, gradually unfolded and explained over a long stretch of story (said explanation interrupted by one damn peril after another) is to locate a lost and (apparently) forgotten financial instrument of vast value. And since there is not only a treasure but also a guilty secret at stake, it is appropriate that a guilty someone is hunting Krina while she hunts the treasure. The plot-machine then proceeds via a series of ingenious variations on the chase-capture-escape-intrigue adventure, set in a series of increasingly exotic environments, from a spacegoing chapel of the Church of the Fragile to the lightless, crushing, occasionally radioactive depths of the water-world Shin-Tethys.
This foreground action is decorated with ingenious variations on the robots-as-humans shtick that made Saturn’s Children such fun. Some of this is jokage in the form of literalized metaphors: the opening lines play off a ticket costing an arm and a leg, or two legs, anyway (with the thighs as down-payment); the matriarch of Krina’s lineage is descended from ‘‘a credit union and a gambling cartel’’; and so on. Some of the shtick is more serious, or at least not simply funny, but a means of re-orienting our way of seeing things. For example, the fundamental structures and life-processes of metahumankind are analogous to those of the Fragile – mechanocytes are like cells, and so on – but they are described in terms of a social polity or economy (which are perhaps the same thing viewed from different angles).
Mechanocytes in a body must sacrifice some of their autonomy for the collective good; they trade nutrients and energy, obey orders, and bid for resources. There is, in fact, an internal economy that unites the ‘cytes of a body: a market driven by the debt created by their host’s existence, a life defined by their willingness to cooperate. Death is really no more than the voluntary liquidation of an economy of microscopic free agents, the redemption of the debt of structured life. We are, after all, homo economicus.
That notion of debt is thematic, running through the entire novel. Krina’s personal biography is in part the story of paying off her progenitor for the cost of spawning and educating her. The interstellar civilization through which she travels is fundamentally an economic construct, and interstellar settlement is energized and sustained by debt. The McGuffin that Krina seeks is a debt instrument. That leads to what is perhaps (at least to a semi-innumerate such as your correspondent) the book’s strangest major topic: the three kinds of money – fast, medium, and slow – that power the economy. This matter is crucial and exotic enough that explanations of its significance and operation are spread across several passages throughout the book. And if there a pop quiz demanding an outline of the slow money concept, I’d probably fail, so I just trust Stross on the coherence of this key enabling Idea in the same way I trust Greg Egan when he starts explaining N-dimensional geometries.
Similarly, once you buy into Stross’s model of a robotkind that retains many of the psychological characteristics (and limits) of the Fragile, you can read the characters as simply post- or metahuman, despite the differences in our material underpinnings and operations: greed, lust, dishonesty, irrationality are all in play, along with loyalty, ingenuity, affection, and true grit. The novel’s dedication is ‘‘For everyone, everywhere, who’s ever looked at the stars and thought, ‘I wonder if we could live there.’’ Maybe for the Fragile ‘‘we’’ the answer is ‘‘no,’’ but in these books our tough-skinned nephews and nieces will carry on pretty much as we would have. Just squint a bit and enjoy the view.