Tuesday, June 16, 2009

[Sean's Summation] Saturn's Children (Charles Stross)

If Mr. Stross has been on this blog a bit much of late, you can blame me. I've been an unabashed fan of his after reading Accelerando, and though JD beat me to Halting State, I agree with his solid recommendation to read it. Thus, when I saw the wonderfully...ahem...provocative cover of Saturn's Children, I was genuinely excited -- would this be a Heinlein-eqse, risqué sexbot on a mission romp? The answer, it turns out, is equal parts "yes" and "well, kinda."

Quick setting summary: Saturn's Children is set some several hundred years into our future. Humans have built robots with relatively powerful AI to do all manner of jobs -- from asteroid mining to entertainers to spaceships to whatever else that humans, being squishy or easily bored, couldn't do. Stross gets around our current problems with AI by hand-waving that these robots are based on human intelligence patterns (essentially, computer-based copies of our brain's structure). Robots have a "soul chip" that stores their consciousness, which can be slotted into another copy of the same model, carrying over its experiences and personality. Copies of the same model form lineages that typically stick together, pooling the soul chips of their dead brethren/sisters so that the deceased's memories live on. In addition to their soul chip, robots can have slave chips installed (usually unwillingly), which allow near total control of the robot in question.

By the way, "robot" is a slur equivalent to some of our more pernicious racial slurs. So, apologies to any persons that happen to be non-pink goo reading this. Though, I really should apologize for much more, because, you see, there are no more humans (or any biological life) in Saturn's Children. Somewhere in the next couple of centuries, humans disappear (Stross isn't particularly clear on the how or why, but it's not really necessary to the story), leaving behind our robot slaves and a destroyed Terran ecosystem. Problematically, since robots were generally property rather than people, this left most in a peculiar legal state. Some enterprising robots that happened to have legal powers of attorney used their now defunct masters' funds to buy up around 90% of the robot population. This created a solar system of a incredibly small, cruel and insane aristocracy and enormous slave population. The few remaining "free" robots were essentially self-owned LLC's barely scraping by, attempting to avoid falling into debt and becoming indentured servants themselves.

Enter into this world our protagonist, Freya, a free robot of modest means. Unfortunately for her, her lineage's purpose died out with humanity: she was to be a hyper-advanced sex toy for the few remaining humans. (Is it any wonder we died out?) Thus, she starts the story down on her luck somewhere in the high atmosphere of Venus.

Looking back over those last couple of paragraphs, I can conclude that I'll never be a jacket-cover writer. Moving on.

In continuing theme with his previous fiction, Stross depicts space-travel as realistically as possible. Thus, it is very Hobbesian: solitary, nasty, and brutish, but not so much with the short. Travel to Jupiter from Mars on even some of the fastest ships takes over a year and that journey comes with a hefty dosage of ionizing radiation from the ship's nuclear engines. Colonization efforts are also depicted in realistic, but nonetheless fantastic, detail: a city moves on rails around Mercury to keep its temperature optimal, while Mars gives birth to a massive space elevator. While settlement would have been impossible for squishy humans, robots manage to proliferate, colonizing the solar system in our stead. While this is terribly disappointing to those of us raised on Star Trek, it sadly has the support of quite a bit of scientific evidence behind it.

Stross cheats a bit with his characters and makes them mostly clones of each other, but this sort of fits in a world dominated by many clones of a few basic models. There is a background cast of various more fantastic non-anthropromophic bots, but their details are usually shallow. There are a few colorful exceptions to this, of course: Dechs seems to fill the role of the plucky dog sidekick, but reveals to be much more. The hobo bots on Mars are also wonderful bit of the familiar yet absurd.

Perhaps one of my favorite theme in the story were the debates concerning creation myths from a robotic perspective. As creatures created rather than evolved, the majority of robots had trouble believing that their creators came to be in such a messy manner. This leads to the comedic reversal of evolutionists being treated as the intellectual parriahs that today's creationists fill, complete with cultists, "skeptics" and the like.

Though I am admittedly a Strossian fan-boy, we now come to the part of the essay where I must lambaste him for failing: Mr. Stross needs an editor with a chainsaw and plenty of duct tape. As was the case with Accelerando, Saturn's Children is occasionally non-linear. Unlike previous works, however, these transitions are unexpected and confusing. At several points in the book the transitions were so jarring, I found myself checking page numbers to make sure my copy wasn't missing pages. A zealous editor should notice these sorts of things and berate Mr. Stross until they're fixed.

(As a note, from reading his blog, it appears he's been releasing and editing quite a number of books of late. While I'm all for output, I really would prefer a more paced release schedule. Quality, not quantity!)

Further, his characters motivations and personalities fall flat, especially towards the novel's climax. I was left wondering, "So, that's why so-and-so did that? Ho-hum." It just really didn't feel believable or interesting. The overall plot, too, felt a bit weak. It was very Mission: Impossible (the Tom Cruise movies, not the TV show): needlessly complicated, with too many, "Oh no, X was really Y all along!" moments.

Despite these complaints, I had a good time with the novel, and would definitely recommend it to fellow SF readers for their enjoyment.


LisaBit said...

My god, you posted! Be still my heart! Also hooray for more scifi representation!

After Halting State I can't decide if I'm gunning for more Stross or not. I was so divided when I finished HS that I couldn't even manage to write a review - thus why I badgered JD into doing it ;P I'm thinking maybe some Peter F. Hamilton soon to give me a good scifi dose.

Sean said...

Halting State was probably his best to date, especially given how plausible it is and its effective use of multiple POV.

Interestingly enough, he's written some fantasy as well -- I've got a few books of it if you're interested.

JD said...

Thanks for the review! I've been meaning to pick that one up, but wanted to read Halting State first to see what I thought of the man.

That, and I have to get over my embarrassment being seen buying a book with that cover...

Sean said...

The American cover is awesome.