Monday, June 30, 2014

Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

If you looked up “accessible” in the dictionary, you wouldn’t find a picture of Charles Stross there.  In fact it might say ant. Charles Stross.  If there was a dictionary that described him as accessible it would probably be bound in the skin of some eldritch horror and kept in a vault beneath an armed guard, less an unprepared mortal glimpse it and go mad.  But his blog posts and short stories tend to be insightful and crystal clear, so I read Stross with the firm impression that he’s an experienced wordsmith who, as they say over there, is often taking the piss.  And I take it in the spirit in which I think it’s intended, generally.

I read this on the same trip that I read Ancillary Justice on, both because it was a Hugo nominee and because it was on special in the Kindle store.  I generally liked it; but the parts that I didn’t like were the least Stross-ish, which is not how I usually feel after reading his books.  So I am in the unusual position of deciding that this one needed to be weirder.  Permit me to explain.

This book is a loose sequel to Saturn’s Children, which dealt with the adventures of one Freya Nakamichi-47.  The whole thing was something of a parody, pastiche, or homage to late-period Robert Heinlein stories, especially Friday.  Only the main character’s libido was explained by her being a literal sex-bot in a world that didn’t have any humans left for her to be a sex-bot for.  Or as Stross describes her, an “omni-competent and beautiful yet sexually submissive heroine”.  (Stross pointed out that people who do Heinlein tributes tend to do Starship Troopers period Heinlein, before he started really indulging his bizarre fetishes.)  They’re not robots in the US Robots & Mechanical Men sense, either, they’re built out of “mechanocytes” and need both food and electrical power to keep going, and are based on human neural patterns.  Like all Stross novels, it veers into crazytown eventually, but doesn’t go in for a while and is a good read.  It’s probably the least strange of all the Stross books I’ve read, and if you are a genre fan, or just suffered through some of Heinlein’s stranger works, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Neptune’s Brood takes place several thousand years later, features none of the same characters, and does not tackle the same issues, so calling it a sequel is only true in the absolute most literal sense of the word.  The robots have evolved somewhat from Saturn’s Children and appear to have actually solved some of their societal problems by declaring themselves to be humans, albeit somewhat better designed ones.  Groups of religious fanatics persist in attempting to re-seed the universe with old-fashioned homo sapiens (a.k.a. “Fragiles”), but without a good biosphere to live in, our biological descendants tend not to last all that long, and in fact have been rendered totally extinct on at least three occasions.  Of course the robots are our intellectual descendants in all the important senses, and they accordingly feel that way about themselves.  It’s also worth mentioning that we managed to give them all the negative aspects of humanity; this ain’t a utopia.

Saturn’s Children was a solar-system spanning adventure romp, whereas this one is more about economics.  If Stross read Friday before writing the first one, this time he’s apparently been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, for this book is really all about cash.

Economics is just as important to the robots as it is to us, and the protagonist of this one, Krina Alizond-114, is an accounting nun; a forked instance of her ancient and somewhat questionably be-ethiced line mother.  Krina is by no means a sex-bot, in fact it’s hinted that she was designed with more or less no interest along those lines whatsoever, although this is not universally true among her sisters.  She is in possession of something of a treasure map and a couple of slow dollars, though.
Slow dollars get explained early and often.  In the future, you see, the robots have trifurcated our economic system and use different sorts of money for different asset classes.  Fast money is what we would call cash these days; you earn it, you spend it, it’s good to have, but subject to macroeconomic booms, busts, and crashes.  Medium money represents land and capital improvements; your house, factories, stuff like that.  The idea is that even in a recession or depression all those medium goods still exist, they don’t go away.  The robots therefore use different money to exchange those, although it’s possible to convert fast money to medium money and vice versa there’s a floating exchange and if you’re in a rush you lose a lot of value.

We don’t really have anything like slow money right now, which denominates the debt of interstellar colonies.  Each colony issues their own and it can take decades to exchange all the cryptographic codes to negotiate them, but on a very rough scale a slow dollar represents the entire GDP of an industrialized world for a year.  Personally having a slow dollar means that you are almost unfathomably wealthy.  Being a slow millionaire like Krina’s line mother is basically can’t even be understood by puny mortals like us.  Becoming a slow millionaire is worth a few risks.

Before too long Krina is experiencing some of those risks; she starts out on something of a sleazy waystation before booking passage on a somewhat dysfunctional church ship.  Unfortunately, a deadly assassin sneaks on the ship with her.  Fortunately, the ship is waylaid by a group of pirates/chartered accountants/insurance adjusters with a letter of marque.  This bunch (whose name is a lovely Month Python reference) underwrote a life insurance policy for one of Krina’s sisters – one who she’s looking for and who’s in on this whole treasure hunt thing.  Their investigation takes them to a world that’s covered entirely in ocean, and by the time they start talking about the lost colony of Atlantis and the communist squid people you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re solidly in Stross territory.

But unlike a normal Stross novel I found myself thinking a couple of times that I already knew this.  For instance, the concept of the “blue smoker” is explained at least twice, and once was enough, especially since the concept of heavy water as a neutron slower is specifically gone over again.  And at another point Krina ends up taking a trip down to the hadean depths of the ocean, a journey which is tedious for her and tedious for the reader.  Stross usually doesn’t wait for the reader to catch up, and yet here I was waiting for him to get moving already.  And then, there's a lot of setup for some somewhat disappointing action payoffs, particularly toward the end.  It would have been worth another twenty pages to hear about an exciting boarding action in space, really it would, especially after more than that much spent in hearing about Krina swimming down, eating a meal, swimming more, eating another meal, et cetera.

Anyway, the central mystery of the book involves the lost colony of Atlantis (strangely enough not the ocean planet).  The slow-money economy is dependent on information, and specifically information traveling somewhat slower than light.  FTL communication or travel would blow the whole thing wide open and lead to a Jubilee of epic proportions, which means that developments along these lines are a common thing for con men and grifters to promise.  There are rumors that Atlantis was close to a breakthrough in this area; there are other rumors that the whole thing was a con.  There are other rumors that it was both.  What is known is that the colony went missing and there are some large balance transfers outstanding, if only one could find half of a private encryption key.  The Atlantis stuff was quite good SF, and also good mystery.  It kept me guessing and in the end I guessed wrong – hey, it happens.

There are some really great setpieces in this novel.  If the whole thing lived up to the Atlantis subplot, or the introduction to the cathedral ship, or the bit where Krina decides to spend one slow dollar at a fancy hotel, this would be one of the greatest SF novels I’ve ever read.  Unfortunately it doesn’t maintain that level throughout.  I’d give it generally high marks anyway, though.  Fans of Stross or SF generally, check it out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Well, this is one of the hot new things in the SF/F world; won the Nebula, is on the short list for the Hugo, excellent word of mouth.  I was recently on a trip that involved a great deal of air and rail travel, and therefore with some time to do some reading, and it seemed like a good bet.  On the whole, I liked it, but I’m also not entirely sold on the hype.

Ancillary Justice by prolific writer and first time novelist Ann Leckie delves into something of a grab bag of themes and settings from other SF/F works that you have probably read, if you’re a fan of the genre.  The focus is on a character that I’ll call Breq, which is what she often calls herself, even though that’s not really her name and most other characters don’t believe her when she says that’s who she is.  The book introduces itself in medias res, with Breq on a forlorn ice planet, looking for someone.  Then she runs across Seivarden, someone who used to be her commanding officer in the space navy, who’s become a drug fiend and is currently about to perish of hypothermia out there in the snow.

Humanity has spread out to the stars somehow, far enough that Earth is considered extremely distant and not all that interesting, although not mythical.  There are various space empires out there; the navy that Breq was in belonged to a faction called the Radch.  This bunch is a Romanesque empire which is ultimately run by one Anaander Mianaai, who has some sort of backed-up cloud consciousness and hundreds or thousands of cloned bodies to house it.

The Radch are contradictory.  Like the Romans of old, or most empires in general, they’re hard to classify as good guys or bad guys.  Life inside the Radch is pretty good, lots of trade, generally peaceful, mostly tolerant, although there is a polytheistic state religion.  Promotions are ostensibly on merit and anyone should theoretically be able to pass tests to join any profession if they’re good enough.  They’re also gender neutral, to the extent that their language has no gendered pronouns whatsoever.  (Breq refers to every other character as “she” and “her” for this reason, as gender is simply not important to her, for cultural and other reasons which become apparent later on.)

But of course everyone’s got some downsides.  For all their tolerance, they’ve got some serious hangups about clothing – witness the horror that someone might leave the house without gloves, or gloves of the wrong type.  And they also go around bloodily conquering people, and mind-wiping planetary populations to serve as “corpse-soldiers”, which are run by shipbound AIs as a sort of hive-mind.  Their civilization also comes with economic costs, as everyone is organized into feudal-ish houses, with official clientage contracts that go all the way up to Anaander Mianaai.  Complaining about this might end up getting you re-educated and sent off somewhere else.  If you’re lucky.  They've also got the death penalty, and Anaander Mianaai can simply order people executed on a lark.

To some extent though, that’s all in the past.  The Radch stopped expanding about a thousand years ago; there was some fallout after the annexation of the planet Garseddai didn’t go well (e.g., resulted in the death of all life in the system), and shortly thereafter the Radch signed a treaty with the alien Presger, who have fantastically advanced technology but entirely foreign  morality.  The treaty forbids destruction of other sentient life (human on human violence is A-OK!) under most circumstances, and in return the Presger recognize the right of humans to live without being kidnapped from their starships and vivisected without anesthesia, which was apparently a thing that the Presger were doing up until that point.  There are some exceptions in the treaty, but they’re apparently so incomprehensible to a human mind that it’s easier to just never take a chance on killing an alien being.  The lack of conquests has led to a lack of loot and clientage, and there’s also some grumbling that the wrong sorts are getting promoted to high positions these days; some people are saying that the Radch have gone soft and that maybe a return to traditional ways is in order.  What Anaander Mianaai thinks of all this is unclear at best.

Anyway, Breq is on a mission.  As I said, we start on the middle of the mission, and then get some flashbacks while she explains to the reader (and some other people) how she got there, and what exactly she’s planning on doing.  Then the last quarter of the book deals with her doing it, and the repercussions of that.  The mystery is pretty good, but also seems a little bit more self-involved than necessary.  It’s not quite as shocking as the narrative portrays it, although maybe I’m just a good guesser after reading so many genre novels by this point.

There’s really a lot to like about this book, and it’s altogether more impressive for a first novel.  Breq may not care about gender, but it’s something of at least passing interest for most modern readers, and the text itself does a great job of establishing what characters are in fact male, without ever coming right out and saying so.  For instance it’s pretty clear that Seivarden 1) is male, 2) doesn’t recognize Breq, and 3) has a major crush on Breq by the end.  Any of these three things would be easy to just tell and not show, but all of these points arise organically through the writing.  This is most assuredly not easy to do.  And I also really appreciate how referring to every character as “she” makes the reader think and then rethink about the characters as we learn more about them.  It makes the reader consider gender assumptions, and that’s not always comfortable.

And, in general, the writing is strong with no major missteps.  Breq has something of a flat affect, but again, this turns out to be quite justified, as she is arguably not sane, and probably not even what passes for human even among the more liberal interpretations of that in the future.

In fact the book is so generally strong that I feel churlish for picking nits, but I cannot give this book a pure 100% recommendation.  But for starters, it’s the first book in a trilogy.  This is a personal issue of mine, in that I don’t like everything being a series or trilogy.  I’m okay to read long books, if you’ve got that much to say, lay it on me.  It also can be a way to avoid dealing with major conflicts or resolving the major tension in the story in the first volume; you just have to deal with some sort of crisis and then can have a cliffhanger.

I also am not completely sold on how everything just sort of works out for Breq.  Seivarden is literally just lying out there in the snow on this ice planet for basically no reason.  Well, he’s drugged out, and sells her ride for drug money, but other than that it’s a damn big coincidence.  It also helps that he’s got this aristocratic background and turns out to be just the thing she needs to get back into Radch space.  The rest of the plot was actually so well done overall that this contrivance was especially jarring, like the one moldy strawberry in an otherwise perfect quart.

And also it’s clear that Leckie is fascinated about politics, gender identity, theory of mind and choral singing, which is great.  I don’t mind the softest of SF/F myself, as long as the story flows nicely.  But there’s a major plot point involving a weapon, which I really wish had been fleshed out a little bit more.  I guess it takes bullets, but we’re never told what it looks like, so I found myself picturing it as an 1863 model LeMat revolver.  This is one area where a little bit of technobabble would have been nice, since military officers, government officials and combat AIs persist in simply describing it as a “gun” without further elaboration.

I can’t say that I was exactly knocked over by the discussion of AI, either.  There are some interesting points made, but nothing that hasn’t been covered in other works, and usually with more detail.  One character does point out that the AIs are instantiated in planet-destroying warships and how exactly is anyone going to make them do stuff they don’t want to?  Given that, I was entirely amused at Breq’s position at the end of the novel.  So that’s good.

So should you believe the hype?  I wouldn’t necessarily go into this thinking that it’s going to be the very best SF/F novel you’ve read this decade, but it’s certainly pretty good.  I’ll reserve final judgment until the next two are done, but it’s definitely worth a look for any genre fan, and even has some cross-genre appeal.