Charles Stross: Saturn’s Children

Charles Stross’ new SF novel heads in a different direction from his earlier ones: Rather than exploring the near future of humanity, or the far future after the singularity, Saturn’s Children considers a future in which humanity has died out. Before we went, though, we created some awfully sophisticated robots, and they continued on and built their own culture on the bones of our own once we were gone. (Thus humanity is the Saturn of the title, and the bots are our children.)

The narrator, Freya, is a model built as a sex companion for humans, based on a model named Rhea. Life is hard in this society of constructs, since most robots are enslaved – legally and through controlling hardware or software – to the few aristocrats who run things. Additionally, since their role as companions to humans is well-and-truly obsolete, Rhea’s Get have the additional challenge of finding a reason to live. Indeed, when the story opens Freya is contemplating suicide while living on Venus, but she’s instead derailed by running afoul of another humaniform construct called the Domina, whose animosity makes Freya think she’d better leave the planet fast. Through her contacts, Freya hooks up with the Jeeves corporation, which run a shady import/export business. Hired to run a package to Mars, Freya gets caught between factions trying to fundamentally change the balance of society in the solar system.

The thing that keeps me coming back to Stross’ science fiction novels is the inventive ways in which he dances around the edge of the singularity, acknowledging perhaps more bluntly than any other writer that the transcendence of our species can take many forms, and that there will still likely be unlifted individuals around to view what happens next, even if they don’t understand it. While Saturn’s Children doesn’t see the transcendence of humanity as is typically envisioned, it does see us supplanted by our own creations, even if they are as flawed as we are despite the advantages of being advanced computing machines gives them. They are literally “posthumans”, if not the sort we usually think of when we hear the term.

The machines are caught up in a web of rules which have echoes of Asimov’s Laws, but are more rooted in the nature of programming rules and human laws: The less-advanced robots have no choice but to follow them, while the more advanced ones – ones which aren’t controlled by slave chips – use their smarts to get around them and use them to their benefit. And as always there are the many who fall between the cracks, who aren’t controlled but who are also ignored by those in power as long as they don’t get noticed. Freya meets many such people, from the Jeeveses who have their own power but who operate in the shadows, to some sad, damaged beings who live on the fringes of society, all of whom seem a little human, but also rather inhuman.

Although there’s a lot of intellectual chewiness in Saturn’s Children, the narrative often drags. I think the core problem is the main character: Freya is introspective and occasionally snarky, but perhaps due to her background as a, well, sex robot, she’s a pretty passive figure, more of an observer than a difference-maker.

The plot is similar to Freya in this way, as the stakes are high, but it splutters out in the resolution. It’s not a difference-maker of a story, rather it feels like it falls a few years before the developments that are really going to change things in the solar system. So the book feels more like a tour of this unusual future with a story grafted onto it, and while Freya’s own situation is a tough one for her to get out of, as a novel it lacks weight.

I think Stross intended the nature of identity and freedom in this post-human world to be where the book’s weight would lie: Freya spends much of the book working out her identity as distinct from her mother and sisters, which is tricky since she has her sister Juliette’s memory chip sitting in a socket for much of the book and experiences some of Juliette’s own adventures when she dreams. And the nature of slavery for both tightly-programmed bots and for bots wearing slaver chips comes into play a few times. But these elements seemed more like plot devices to me than really deeply-explored themes. I actually found the nature of the Jeeveses and their company to be more interesting on both counts, perhaps because despite being stereotypical butlers, they seemed more vivid characters than Freya.

Stross is rarely lacking in the ideas department, but as a reader I sometimes find that the story is lackluster compared to the backdrop, as here and in Halting State. Stross can tell a rollicking adventure story with a big payoff in the end, but neither of his last two novels have lived up to the likes of Singularity Sky or Glasshouse. I guess that’s just the price he pays for trying new stuff with each book.

Charles Stross: Halting State

Review of the novel Halting State by Charles Stross.

Charles Stross’ novels have wandered all over the speculative fiction map, from fantasy/adventure to space opera to really-high-tech space opera, and now to the near future in Halting State. The book takes place in 2018, mostly in Scotland which has seceded from the United Kingdom but is still part of the European Union. The book opens with a theft at a Hayek Associates, but it’s not an ordinary theft: Hayek runs central banks for several MMORPGs, storing virtual equipment and loot securely for their virtual owners who are off adventuring elsewhere. Someone has managed to attack the company through the game and make off with a large volume of virtual assets, essentially corrupting the live database Hayek keeps in trust for its clients, and thus putting its reputation and market value at risk. The marketing director at Hayek panics and calls the local constabulary, which is how Sue, one of the three protagonists in Halting State, gets involved, as the officer who takes the call.

Hayek’s insurance company learns of the crime, and worries not only about its liability, but about its own reputation. It sends a cadre of officers to Hayek to find out what happened (and cover their asses), including the second protagonist, Elaine, who fears that she’s being positioned to provide cover for her bosses. As part of the outing, her company hires an outside programmer to help them get oriented to Hayek’s business from a technical side, and they end up with Jack, who’s recently unemployed and had a run-in with the law while on vacation in Holland, but who really knows networked computer games.

The catch is that the theft at Hayek is actually a blind for several other things going on, one of them much larger and indicative of how espionage games might be played between the major powers ten or thirty years from now, and our heroes get caught in the middle of it – along with a whole bunch of other people.

Halting State starts slow and takes a while to get moving, although once it does there are lots of little clever bits: Ways gamers put their skills to use in a world where the virtual and the actual can be blurred, as well as the disconnect between people who only deal with the “real world” and the stakes in a virtual game where virtual assets and reputations have real value. Stross has clearly thought about these issues pretty carefully, and is familiar with both the techies and the non-techies so he can portray both types of people believably.

The book’s biggest flaw is that a lot of it feels superfluous. Sue’s presence seems like a side-issue, as she rarely interacts with Elaine or Jack, and she only seems to be there to witness a couple of key scenes in the book. She doesn’t really add much value, herself. Mostly the book is Elaine’s and Jack’s, and it seems like Stross is maneuvering them to be a “team” in the same way that Rachel and Martin are a team in Stross’ earlier novels Singularity Sky and its sequel, which makes me wonder if he has sequels to Halting State in mind. (Honestly, I’d rather read more novels in the higher-tech and more interesting Singularity Sky universe.) There’s also a lot of running around, especially the big event that Sue witnesses when the EU equivalent of the Men in Black show up to try to solve the case, which effort ends in chaos but to little effect on the story. Basically, the story feels padded.

It’s also told in the second person, which at first seems like a silly little conceit, but eventually I realized that it’s evoking the feel of the text adventure games of my own youth, which are often told in this voice (“You’re standing on a road. It’s a sunny day.” “Go north”, types the player. “You’re standing at the entrance to a castle.”). The voice wears thin after a while in any event, so I still found it to be a silly little conceit. Stross likes to play with style and structure, which I usually appreciate, but he casts his net so wide that I often find his experiments to be very hit-or-miss.

I’m not generally a big fan of near-future SF, usually because I don’t find the tech level to be fantastic enough to really thrill me. Stross does his level best in Halting State to wow the reader with network security concerns, cutting-edge computer hardware, shifting geopolitical strategies, and novel ways to use resources on the network (such as the humans who are logged into it), but the story ends up being merely okay, and the climax felt like a letdown. I think too much finesse left the story feeling a little ethereal, especially since a few of the scenes of maximum excitement seemed like they didn’t move the story forward (although it’s entirely possible that I’m just not seeing a piece of the big picture).

It’s a nice try, though.

Charles Stross: The Jennifer Morgue

Review of Charles Stross’ novel The Jennifer Morgue.

I enjoy Stross’ books generally, and in specific I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives, his first novel about the Laundry, a British agency tasked with dealing with supernatural threats. The Jennifer Morgue is the sequel.

Our geeky hero Bob Howard is once again sent out to save the world, this time by trying to stop billionaire Ellis Billingsley from extracting elder artifacts from a subterranean graveyard in the Caribbean. In this, he’s paired with Ramona Random, an agent from the United States’ Black Chamber (apparently the Laundry’s counterpart, but more mysterious and crafty). Ramona is not human, but hides this under a glamour; she also has frightening voracious – and fatal – appetites, which creep the hell out of Bob when a spell results in the two of them being psychically linked.

Billingsley, it turns out, has a mystical generator protecting him by being a plot device (literally!) such that only someone filling the role of James Bond in a Bond film can stop him. Since Bond is British, guess who’s been tabbed for this role? The catch is that if a Bondian hero actually gets close to stopping Billingsley, then he could just turn off the generator and off the hapless chump.

I enjoyed The Jennifer Morgue most when it was exploring the world of the Laundry: The first effort – by the US – to raise an item from the Morgue, Billingsley’s background, and the entertaining notion that humanity has a treaty with the Deep Ones who live at the bottom of the ocean. The main story was less rewarding, as it involves a lot of feint-and-counter-feint, but perhaps two or three too many layers of that so that the story doesn’t quite hang together. There’s more going on than meets the eye, but unfortunately it rather undercuts Bob’s role in the story, which made me wonder what the point of it all was. And the presence of Ramona in the story, though an abstractly interesting dilemma for Bob, seemed rather superfluous as well.

At some meta level, I can understand that Stross is deconstructing the Bond films here, recasting them in a considerably different environment. The problem is, I think the Bond films are self-deconstructing, especially after 40+ years of the things; some of them have veered so far into the realm of self-parody that the basic elements of the formula are clear to everyone, and their ridiculousness is equally evident. It seems an unnecessary experiment.

So, although it’s got its clever and entertainment stretches, I don’t think The Jennifer Morgue is a very successful novel. Maybe I just didn’t appreciate what it was trying to do, but the combination of elements just didn’t work for me.

After the novel is a short story, “Pimpf” (the etymology of that title escapes me), in which Bob gets an intern at work, and his intern gets caught in a trap in a local server of an on-line computer game. It’s quite a clever idea, using computer games as mechanisms for raising eldritch horrors, and this story has a nifty kicker which sends it in a completely different – yet still satisfying – direction at the end. Really, for what it is I liked it better than the novel.

Rounding out the volume is the afterward, “The Golden Age of Spying”, in which Stross examines the James Bond novels and films and their eccentricities, particularly how Bond was exactly not the sort of spy who could have thrived during the Cold War. The essay goes off the rails part-way through when Stross starts mixing his fictional world in with the essay, so it loses its interest there (although it’s still amusing), but the first half is quite insightful and informative.

Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Review of Charles Stross’ novel Glasshouse.

Glasshouse is a nifty little book about memory and identity. Although it could arguably take place in the same future as Accelerando, there’s no clear link between the two other than references to the “acceleration”.

Our hero, Robin, wakes up after having some of his memory removed, apparently at his own wish. In the recovery environment, he hooks up with a woman named Kay, but soon finds out that someone seems to be out to kill him. So he opts to sign up to live in an experimental environment designed to simulate the society of the “dark ages” (i.e., the late 20th/early 21st century). Once there, he finds that it’s maybe a little true-to-life for his tastes: There are no wormhole gates (T-gates) between habitats, and there are no nanotech assemblers (A-gates) to recycle and create objects, or to back up your memories. Everything must be done through manual labor, and aside from a hundred or so other volunteers for the experiment, the habitats are all occupied by zombie humans.

All this would be an inconvenience if Robin didn’t quickly become convinced that the overseers of the experiment were running some sort of scam: They set themselves up as religious leaders, and enforce desired behavior by means of a point system, which is supposed to result in more money earned once the experiment is over. But there are some oddities in the experiment, and loopholes in its rule system, which convinces Robin that something is very rotten indeed, and he’s still not sure why he had his memory edited, quite who he was before then, or who was out to kill him.

As Paul Di Filippo observed in his review, Glasshouse consciously absorbs and reconfigures many elements from earlier books by other authors. I’m not very familiar wih most of the references, although I have read a little Cordwainer Smith and John Varley, but Stross puts his own stamp firmly on the story, with a sardonic wit and lively narrative that makes this a much livelier and more engaging story than Accelerando, even if it’s not the nonstop parade of fantastic ideas that the previous book was.

Perhaps the best thing in the whole novel is the backstory: Glasshouse takes place after the “Censorship Wars”, where A-gates were infected with a software virus which fractured humanspace by editing peoples’ memories when they went into an A-gate. Although it’s largely part of the backstory, the sort of fragmentations that occurred and the extremes to which people were driven still haunts several of our characters. No wonder some of them want to forget certain things!

Stross asks many good questions which only become possible when memory editing is possible, and this leads into the main theme of the novel: What is identity? Not so much who we are (although that’s an important question), but who we think we are. Is continuity of memory necessary? Are skills necessary? Relationships to specific people? Gender? Attitude? And does it really matter? If you’ve lost some set of those elements, but retain others, is it important that you remember who you used to be?

Glasshouse also studies how Robin adjusts to the artifical culture in the experiment, especially since he doesn’t know anything about his fellow citizens, or whom to trust, or how extensively he’s being monitored. His sharp-tongued descriptions of life in the dark ages are hilarious, even in the rather grim context. But it’s also an interesting cauldron which brings out the worst in some characters, and the best in others.

Overall, the novel is thought-provoking, tense, and a lot of fun, with a fully rewarding climax and resolution. Stross is able to manage some concepts which might otherwise run away with the story and makes it all believable as well as exciting. It might not be as ambitious a novel as Accelerando, but I found it more enjoyable.