Monday, October 21, 2013

Book Review: Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross

One of those authors that people keep recommending to me - in a "oohh what do you mean you haven't read..." sort of way - is Charles Stross. The reason I haven't read any of his books is pretty simple, and its to do with the fact despite being, at heart, an SF nerd, I largely burned out on the genre through the 2000s, when Stross really came to prominence. I was also very wary of Singularity-led fiction, so a writer who has a breakthrough work called "Singularity Sky" wasn't going to leap to the top of my book pile. That said he's always lurked on the edge of my consciousness, and given my re-ignited interest in the genre over the last couple of years, I finally got to one of his novels. Sorry it's taken so long, Charles.

Saturn's Children is set in a future where humanity has died out and the solar system has been left in the care of the machines that we build to service them. The nature of AI is closely modelled on our own minds, although with added conditioning depending on their intended function, so naturally, left to their own devices, they've pretty much gone and replicated a lot of our mistakes, creating a semi-feudal hierarchy where a few rich "aristos" hold ownership over most of the rest of the population. The book is told by Freya, one of a line of, well, sexbots, who managed a perilous, self-owned existance in a society in which he has no function, before being sucked into a murky and far-reaching conspiracy, as you do.

For a book about sentient machines in a world without biological entities there is an awful lot of sex in this book, and after a while I just found it a little weird.

So, Freya's function (and psychology, which is also tailored to her role) is an absolutely brilliant idea in the context of this story. "Sexbot" characters (robot and otherwise) are far too common as prizes and trophies in SF and to have one as a fully realised character with her own agency, and have her completely redundant, is one of the things that attracted me to this as a gateway to Stross' work. That sexual desire is both key to the plot and one of the central conflicts of her personality, but what I don't get is why so many other Robots, who weren't designed for this sort of personal service, also seem to be pretty sex-obsessed. Did we build everything with the off-chance we might want to get busy with it?

I guess it comes from a desire to keep the characters relate-able. Freya reacts the world in very human ways, even when the stimulation is different, so can take damage, needs to heal, sleep, and so on, and (because he has to be good at her job by design), can even breathe and eat, even if they don't do her much good. She's also working in a world with very different contexts to our own, so describes things in very reductive terms, leaving you to decipher what some of her descriptions actually mean. Pink Goo Replicators indeed!

The world building here is excellent; and the book manages to take a broad tour of the solar-system without feeling like a travelogue disguised as a novel. It also has a solid handle on it's ideas; the fluidity of Freya's identity as she starts to wear "soul chips" of her sisters, and experience their memories, is fantastic, as well as a great way to shovel in backstory without too much exposition. It is also an interesting way to tell what is essentially a trans-human story, in terms of all the enhancements and tech, whilst having a cleaner slate on what human baggage to carry forward.

I don't think it hits every mark for me though; the sex is sometimes spot on (like the plotline involving the male sexbot, which gets....complicated), but other times it just didn't seem to make sense, and, if you'll pardon the pun, I ended up being pulled out of the story. Stross is also fond of little jokey references and asides that wink to the audience, such as references to The Maltese Falcon and One Million Years BC, which again, sometimes I found cute and clever, and other times immersion breaking and smug. I can't really fathom out why either, as usually I'm totally on board with that sort of thing.

But, these are niggles in what is ultimately a fun and interesting novel. Definately going to hit more of Stross' work, probably either The Atrocity Archive or the Merchant Princes series, and as I said at the start my only regret is that it's taken me this long to try any out!