Charles Stross. Neptune’s Brood (Ace Books 2013).
Stross’s new novel is set in the same future as Saturn’s Children, but now 5000 years hence, & with another naïve female metahuman, Krina Alizond-114, as our slowly-learning-just-what’s-going-on narrator. Krina is ‘a member of the Alizond lineage, an old and prestigious sisterhood’ descended from the robots that once served humanity (which is nearly extinct, again, for the 4th time; humans are now known as ‘the Fragile’). Neptune’s Brood is another highly intelligent & witty space opera, this time about a huge centuries spanning Ponzi scheme that slowly unfolds over the thriller chase narrative in which Krina discovers that, for a historical scholar, she has depths of survival potential, especially when aided by various odd helpers, including a sister.
As the narrative proceeds, it slowly becomes clear that the problems Krina finds herself in can be traced back to her ‘lineage matriarch, Sondra Alizon-1,’ who ‘was instantiated well over two thousand years ago in another star system…. Her progenitors were a credit union and a gambling cartel.’ But just like Krina so many centuries later, who became a supposedly free agent in the Alizond family business, Sondra was able to fairly quickly pay off her ‘construction debt and, furthermore, buy out the intellectual property rights to her lineage and invest her remaining equity in a starship cooperative.’
Krina & a few of her sister historians have discovered some anomalies in the family archives & begun a small hidden rebellion as a result. However, as she finds out now she’s on an ‘academic pilgrimage’ among the stars, Sondra may know of their disobediences, & intends to stomp it out. In this future, there is no FTL, even sending information, including the ‘souls’ of metahumans to be downloaded into new bodies in other star systems, takes a lot of time. But an awful lot of various people seem to be headed to the system Krina finds herself in, &, as she slowly learns more & more about them & about what really happened at the Atlantis colony, in which nasty work Sondra had a very large hand, things get tight for her.
Stross manages the highly intricate plot with great finesse, & articulates both the science of this future universe & of its economic grounding by having the novel be Krina’s history of how eventually she became part of the way various agencies outwit Sondra. So there are a number of what Samuel R Delany would call ‘expository lumps,’ but because they are Krina’s explanations of how money works in any, but especially this, interstellar civilization, they slowly bring to light the atrocities implicit in any capitalist system that runs unchecked (which is what happens in all scams or Ponzi schemes).
Krina is knowledgeable but she is also naïve, & only slowly comes to comprehend the massive complexity of the centuries-spanning scam her matriarch helped mastermind, at the cost of millions of people as well as ‘slow money’ (a brilliant concept). Stross lets her discover everything slowly as she runs, hides, & attempts to both stay alive & bring her & her few sisters’ plot to fruition. Neptune’s Brood is the perfect contemporary space opera, wide-screen epic, full of colour & detail, slyly intelligent in its intellectual understory, & genuinely moving in its emotional representation of people so strangely removed from us ‘Fragiles’ reading it.