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.

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