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.