Charles Stross: making strange

Charles Stross. Saturn’s Children (Ace Books 2008).

Subtitled ‘A Space Opera,’ this is one of Stross’s full throttle entertainments, but that doesn’t mean it lacks for a serious undercurrent, implied throughout in Stross’s subtly satiric way. And that satiric edge begins to bite in the very first few sentences: ‘Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the final extinction of my One True Love, as close as I can date it. I am drunk on battery acid and wearing my best party frock, sitting on a balcony beneath a pleasure palace afloat in the stratosphere of Venus.’ Freya, the narrator of the thriller about to ensue, is the youngest (ie, most recently constructed) of her siblings, pleasure robots designed to be love slaves to human masters (or mistresses); she is extraordinarily well-designed too, capable of sex with just about any ‘person’ in her world, which is to say with the humanoid & non-humanoid robots (using that term in a very wide sense), which exist throughout the solar system, & beyond, in their billions (take, for example, her assignation with a hotel on Mercury).

The first of her kind, Rhea, was built human sized, but most aristos in the new order are smaller, ‘chibiform dwarfs – members of the new aristocracy, caricatures of our dead Creators,’ & hate the original-looking ones like her. Unlike a majority of the citizens of this brave new universe, Freya is not ‘owned’ by anyone but herself, that is the corporation she has created to represent her. It seems that humanity, before it died off, did not allow robots true freedom, yet they found a number of loopholes in the laws as the human population diminished. Centuries later, as they continue to follow humanity’s outward urge & to populate the planets, moons, & planetoids of the solar system, & even some planets around the nearer stars, the inhabitants of this new, or continuing, civilization, lead lives most human-like, with all the good, & bad, results that implies.

Stross’s great achievement in Saturn’s Children is to create, in Freya especially, characters that we can believe in & even identify with while still revealing at every turn of the narrative just how non-human they are. Freya, beginning as a perfect naïve narrator, runs into trouble with ‘the Domina,’ a powerful aristo, who decides, just because she can, to kill her; she needs to get off Venus, & suddenly someone offers her a job couriering something from Mercury to Mars. Thus begins her slapdash journey, a kind of picaresque bildungsroman that will take her from the inner planets to Jupiter’s moons & then to Eris, one of the planetoids beyond the Kuiper Belt. Along the way, she will encounter some of her kin, older sibs who have learned to be spies, since their original purpose was lost before their original, Rhea, was fully activated (as we learn late in the novel, the ‘Creators’ [that is humans who designed such as her], in order to create a mental & emotional template as close to human as possible, had to raise Rhea from ‘birth’ [the construction of her brain] to adulthood as if she were human, a 16 to 18 year process, including larger bodies in which her proprioception could grow). Part of what makes the narrative work as both spy thriller & bildungsroman is the way it gradually deploys information about Freya’s civilization, deepening our understanding as she learns more & more from both her own experiences, now she has been brought into the elder sibs’ enterprise, & from their knowledge, much of which comes from the ‘soul chip’ of an older, & very dangerous, sister, already deep in this particular Great Game. More information comes from the many different types she meets in her travels, not least the Jeeves Corporation, the perfect butlers who have become the perfect informants, expediters, spy-masters.

Saturn’s Children is a fine adventure, then, with a charming heroine, some terrific bad guys, a real danger (the resurrection of humanity from its DNA etc, which if brought about might plunge the whole civilization they have built, with all its faults – aristos, many poor if ‘free’ workers, a huge number of arbeiters (chip enslaved worker robots) – back into complete slavery to humans, for that is how they were built. But it’s more than that, as so many of Stross’s novels are: one of the things he does so well is construct futures (or present day otherness, as in the Laundry novels) which provide a kind of comic ostranenie, a lightly satiric mirror representation of our own world as very strange, indeed (especially to a rational perspective). As well, like Asher, he utilizes arcane scientific & technical terminology that even Freya uses casually, as well as representing the bustling lives & life-styles of these machines to make our own world strange. In Saturn’s Children, the behavior of the robots in their society both mirrors human behavior in various historical modes &, by its failure to truly adjust to their very mode of being, suggests some of what went wrong (for after all, humanity destroyed Earth’s ecology & then died off). One major irony in Freya’s narrative has to do with the way her ‘people’ can ‘live’ in environments that would immediately kill humans, a sly comment on their Creators’ failure to understand both their home environment (denial of global warming anyone?) & the much more savage environments they sought to ‘conquer.’ In a different manner, in Glasshouse, a far future group of advanced humans (‘we’ can go into space & create a galactic culture) suddenly find themselves living out a 1950s middle American ‘dream’ that all too quickly assumes a nightmarishly tragicomic aura, & begins to feel like a madman’s concept of how people should live. If I return to Stross’s fiction later, I’ll try to say more about this. Meanwhile, I can happily recommend Saturn’s Children as top notch, highly entertaining, & thought-provoking science fiction.

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