July 24, 2009

Book review: "Saturn's Children," by Charles Stross

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Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross

Saturn's Children: A Space Opera
By Charles Stross
Ace Books / ISBN: 978-0-44101-594-8

Oh, Charles Stross, how crazy you drive me sometimes! And that's because, as long-time readers know, I have a real back-and-forth relationship with the work of this multiple-award-winning science-fiction veteran, coiner of the very phrase "Accelerated Age" that critics like me now use as a general term for all post-9/11 SF -- because in my opinion, whenever Stross takes on a far-future tale (like he did in, say, 2006's Glasshouse, reviewed here in the past), he is a near-perfect master, turning in stunning fever-dream narratives that far surpass his peers in terms of flabbergastingly unique visions, part of why he's one of the most respected SF authors in the entire industry right now among his fellow industry professionals; but when he takes on "day after tomorrow" tales, though (like he did with 2007's MMO thriller Halting State, also reviewed here in the past), the results are a freaking disaster, ultra-cheesy "CyberThis CyberThat" twaddle already outdated even when first coming out, destined for the remainder bin mere months later and then ironic enjoyment by snotty hipsters for years after that.

I just finished his latest, in fact, Saturn's Children, a nominee for this year's coming Hugo Award (being awarded in Montreal in just two weeks from when I'm writing this, in a year I considered weak for SF*, which is why I didn't bother reading all the nominees this time like I did last year); and the immediate good news, I'm happy to report, is that it's indeed another far-future tale, and indeed just as mindblowing as the others. It is in fact a "space opera," as declared by Stross himself right in the book's subtitle, which he means in the classic, traditional way -- a sprawling epic that relies on massive spaceships and hard-science concepts to take us on a grand tour of the entire now-settled solar system -- and there's a very good reason that he dedicates it to the memories of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. It's a dense book, be warned, one that not only assumes that you already know a fair amount of general science, but that is deliberately designed in the second half to be extra-confusing (but more on that in a bit); but if you can make it through the whole thing, you will be richly rewarded for it, with this "intellectual-friendly action thriller" having an untold amount of smart things to say about humanity, artificial humanity, the sociology of sociopaths, the meaning of "civilization," and a lot more.

Because for those who don't know, the reason this is half-dedicated to Asimov is because it's a novel all about robots, robots who fundamentally operate under Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics," essentially making Saturn's Children an unauthorized sequel to Asimov's classic "Robot Series" of novels and stories he authored from the 1950s through '90s (and why Ace Books doesn't make more of this on the cover and sleeves** is beyond me -- it came as a complete surprise only after I started reading it). In fact, this is a novel about robots that takes place hundreds of years after humanity has gone extinct, from a cause that Stross lets remain a mystery throughout; because as anyone who's familiar with Asimov's old work knows, as part of this A.I. psychological conditioning known as the Three Laws ("Don't harm humans; don't let a human be harmed through inaction; protect yourself only when it doesn't interfere with the first two laws"), robots can't even contemplate the violent deaths of humans, much less investigate the causes, without getting so freaked out that they nearly shut down. Let's not forget that when Asimov first came up with this concept (smack-dab in the middle of Mid-Century Modernism), robots were envisioned by the general population as essentially smart toasters, so of course it would make sense to "bake" an unshakeable moral code into these artificial ("positronic") brains, so that the robots don't get all uppity one day and decide to try to enslave the human race.

But in our contemporary "pre-Singularity" times, when the mechanical and biological are starting to combine in the kinds of ultra-sophisticated ways that people in the 1950s couldn't even imagine, what seemed to them like benevolent rules to keep smart machines under control can start looking awfully like virtual slavery*** among autonomous biomecha "people;" and in fact Stross makes this concept the main underlying truism of his entire novel, envisioning an interplanetary society of billions of such creatures, all of them designed to serve their all-powerful Creators, then pondering what might happen to such a society if all the Creators suddenly died. For example, under the rules of Asimov's universe, nearly all robots are legally required to be "owned" by a human, whether or not humans technically actually exist anymore; but since in the eyes of the law corporations are considered "people," this becomes the elaborate workaround for this A.I. society, with all independent creatures essentially being the owners of one-person companies, that company's sole purpose being to own that creature, but with that company still liable to bankruptcy and hostile takeovers and all the other elements of human corporate law.

And why don't the robots just change the now-outdated human laws? Well, that's part of the problem of Asmiov's Three Laws being cooked into their brains, Stross shrewdly shows, that they're not authorized to change any of old humanity's existing long-term plans or bureaucratic infrastructures, instead charged with the continual creation of yet more new far-off colonies that no human will ever eventually sail to and live in; in fact, this is another element of the story that Stross makes great use of, showing us an uber-Kafkaesque society that has simply been chugging along with the status quo for centuries now, because of none of them being authorized to change the underlying structure of how the society works. But then playing again off of one of Asimov's most famous robot stories (the one Chris Columbus turned into the truly awful movie Bicentennial Man), about ten percent of these robots managed to convince their owners during the downfall of humanity to declare them legally autonomous sentient creatures (i.e. a "person" in the eyes of the law), with it being no coincidence that they were mostly the old butlers, maids and personal assistants of the rich, designed to look remarkably like humans so to blend into human society; it's these creatures who make up the robot aristocracy of this post-human world, creatures so hell-bent on maintaining power that they have turned humanity itself into something to be feared and scorned, with the new standard physical body shape in their post-human world for example not being humanoid at all, but rather three-foot-tall giant-eyed porcelain-covered anime types, and even with the word 'robot' itself now the kind of profound insult that, say, the N-word is in today's society.

It turns out in fact that Stross, just like Asimov, understands the true point of writing an entire novel about robots, in what could've otherwise been a pretty flat potboiler -- namely, to comment on humanity itself, to examine what specifically it is that makes us human, that simply can't be replicated in an artificial form. Because it's a side-effect of this situation I'm describing that turns into the main conflict of Saturn's Children, and what fuels most of the developments of its highly inventive plotline (which I will let remain mostly a surprise today, so don't worry about any spoilers unexpectedly popping up); that without the empathy that naturally comes with being human, this moneyed elite of artificial people quite quickly become cruel slave-owners themselves without even blinking an eye, turning their entire galaxy-wide society into one where 90 percent of the citizens joylessly toil until death for the pampered pleasure of the remaining ten. And then like I said, without giving too much away, we essentially get to explore this interplanetary society through the eyes of former prostitute Freya Nakamichi-47, now considered a gargantuan freak because of her uncanny similarity to a full-sized human supermodel babe, as she transforms over an extremely tight 300 pages from slacker musician to hired spy and maybe-assassin, getting caught up more and more in a grand conspiracy involving the highly illegal black-market manufacture of "pink goo" and "green goo" (animal and plant biological material, respectively), a good old-fashioned shoot-em-up noir that takes us all the way from Mercury to the brown dwarfs beyond Pluto, and nearly every planet in between.

It's this aspect, in fact, that allows Stross to rightly claim this as a space opera, and is where the Heinlein part of his dual dedication comes in; because make no mistake, Saturn's Children is vast and grand and epic in its scope, and in usual Strossian fashion offers up a whole series of cutting-edge hard-science concepts that'll make your head spin: from personal coffin-like gel-filled spaceships that are essentially flung to a planet's surface from orbit by a giant slingshot to a waiting maglev "net," to the sentient, deep-voiced, lone-wolf cargo craft who shuttle these one-robot capsules back and forth across the universe, using massive solar plasma sails for one half of the journey (the "downriver" half, flying away from the sun) and a nuclear fission reactor for the "upriver" trip back. This is one of the things Stross is most known for, another reason he's so admired among his fellow writers, and here he definitely does not disappoint; just his description alone of the frontier society among "hillbilly robots" that exists beyond Saturn is worth the purchase price, much less the dozens and dozens of other scientific/sociological concepts he slips in as well.

Now, all that said, there are things about this book that are sure to really bother some readers; as mentioned, for example, Stross deliberately adds a highly confusing element to the second half, with Freya ending up wearing for too long the "soul chip" of her "sister" Juliette (too complicated to fully explain here -- imagine being able to record all your experiences and emotions on a disc that can be easily swapped between robots of a similar make, but with Stross handling the details with a lot more nuance), to the point where it becomes difficult to even tell anymore whether it's Freya or Juliette narrating any particular section, a crucial element of the surprise-filled third act but that will drive some people crazy anyway. (And be warned, by the way, that Stross uses the concept of violent robot sex as a plot device so often that it'll make some readers [particularly females] uncomfortable, and especially the final character reveal about Freya which is surprisingly disturbing for a science-fiction action thriller.) But all that being true, please note that Saturn's Children is receiving a score in the 9s today, a rare event for a genre book here which means in my opinion that it transcends its usual genre limitations; or in other words, if you're the kind of person who only reads one or two SF novels a year, I'm confident in my belief that this should be one of them, a story that examines universal issues of humanity in such a smart way that you literally don't have to be a genre fan to deeply enjoy it. As you can tell, it comes highly recommended today for everyone out there.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about Saturn's Children: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*That said, I have also already reviewed here another of this year's Hugo nominees, Neal Stephenson's astounding Anathem; it's just that I have almost no interest in the other three nominees. I mean, for f-ck's sake, two of them are young-adult novels; and if you've got multiple children's books being nominated for what's considered the most important award in adult science-fiction, to me that's proof that it was a bad year for adult science-fiction. But maybe that's just me.

**And speaking of baffling details about this book's cover, a little question for the design staff over there at Ace Books: Seriously, are you trying to make me too embarrassed to buy your freaking books? I mean, Cheez-Its, do you understand that I had to literally wrap a plain paper cover around my library copy of this novel (and really, I actually did this), because as a big-city middle-aged intellectual I was ashamed of all the looks I was getting from others while out at cafes and on the bus with it? For all the hundreds of arresting mental images that can be found within the pages of this book, it is just beyond my f-cking understanding how what got chosen for the cover of the US hardback edition was instead some cheesy CGI/airbrushed picture of a horny 16-year-old boy's Second Life avatar. It makes me want to scream at the people responsible for it, about how they're literally driving away thousands of people who would otherwise probably love this highly sophisticated, very adult novel, and how this is just one of a thousand tiny details that has the mainstream publishing industry in the toilet these days.

***And by the way, it's not just Stross who makes great use of these kinds of issues within robot stories; Asimov himself was known for tackling all kinds of thorny sociological topics within his original tales, almost half a century ago now. If you're a SF fan and have never done so before, you really owe it to yourself to go back and at least sample the prodigious collection of stories and books Asimov put out under this series, throughout the second half of the 20th century; there are worse ways to start, for example, than with the story collection I, Robot (and again, skip the movie version), plus the robot detective novel that started it all, The Caves of Steel.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:15 AM, July 24, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |