Book Review: Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross.

 

One of the great things about Houston is the abundance of used bookstores. Makes it easy to keep a well-stocked to-read pile. That, and there’s something to be said for ‘the hunt,’ aspect of it, searching for random, obscure books.

It’s while I was searching for Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum that I came across another book of his, Saturn’s Children. And again, while I’m a huge fan of used books, this particular title kind of made me wish I’d gotten it in ebook version, instead.

 

See if you can figure out why.

Anyway, cheesecakey cover aside, Saturn’s Children is a fun, if kind of fluffy sort of book. It’s set in the far, far future, where humanity has gone extinct- however, humanity’s countless robot servants are still kicking around. Without humans, there’s no government, and without government, there’s nothing to change the laws on the books that the robots are programmed to obey, and so this leads to a dystopian society in which no robot is truly ‘free,’ their bodies are just assets owned by shell corporations- that is, unless the particular robot is already owned by someone else, as is the case for most of the population.

(As a side note, I probably shouldn’t be using the term ‘robot,’ so handily, given that the synthetic life forms of Saturn’s Children view the r-word as a racial slur. Then again, I’m an overly privileged carbon based life form, so I don’t know any better. I’ll just keep on using the word for convenience’s sake. Apologies if I’ve offended any androids in the reading audience).

Anyway, the book centers around Freya- a sexbot (though she doesn’t have pink hair, so that cover’s not 100 percent accurate). Given that the last human died some century or so before Freya was even brought online, she’s kind of at loose ends.

Before long, however, Freya gets involved in a system-spanning adventure, full of captures and reversals and chases and all the other stuff you’d expect from a sci-fi novel.

The plot of the book is both straightforward and convoluted. The various schemes and plans that Freya gets caught up in are appropriately twisted, especially given the fact that it’s very easy for the robots (sorry, androids) to copy memories and personalities onto little flash-drives and swap them back and forth. This leads to all kinds of identity-blurring shenanigans, often resulting in characters plotting against themselves in one way or the other.

Thematically, however, Saturn’s Children is pretty standardized, almost to the point of a ‘paint by numbers’ kind of plot. Freya’s trip across the solar system hits all the beats you’d expect from any other ‘random person is caught in a big conspiracy’ story. This is completely intentional, as I got the impression Stross wrote Saturn’s Children mostly so he could cut loose and have some ridiculous fun. He’s fairly shameless about it, too- there’s a sequence where Freya’s tied to some train tracks (because of course she is), and later some bad guys are trying to get ahold of a statue of a bird (because of course they are), which a thug refers to as a ‘plot capon.’ Metatext puns. I have to admit I’m kind of impressed. The only thing that’s missing is a twirled moustache, and I might just have missed that by accident.

The pop culture references go deeper than that. For example, the ruling, rich-bitch robots (oligarh androids?) style themselves as ‘bishojo,’ with lacy collars and big anime eyes and such. Meanwhile, their servants and hangers-on tend towards smaller bodies, because less mass makes it easier to get around in space and such- and so they’re referred to as chibis or munchkins. And then there’s Freya’s employers, an organization of home-service androids who all go by the name Jeeves. I wound up envisioning them all as Steven Fry, which I’m sure is what Stross would’ve wanted.

Really, a good metaphor for the novel is a weapon Freya winds up taking off of one of her assailants.

YO DAWG I HEARD YOU LIKE KNIVES AND GUNS AND PUNCHING

Not only is that a combination of things to the point of ridiculousness, but it’s an actual, obscure thing (an Apache Pistol to be precise). Stross just piles one space-trope on top of another, on top of another, on top of another. The plot’s kind of cliche, but that’s not the point; we’re just along for the ride to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek craziness of it all.

And yet, while Stross has a system-spanning civilization of slave-driving robots, he keeps it…semi plausible. Sure, there are sentient robots running around having adventures on the moon, but at the same time, he takes basic physics and such into consideration. The outer planets are very, very inhospitable. I mean, robots don’t need to breathe- but they still need protective gear to keep themselves from freezing when they go gallivanting about on Mars. There’s no faster than light travel, and so traveling between planets is a matter of years. And that’s even assuming one’s flying first class- slower transports can take decades. Of course, since the robots are, well, robots, they’re able to endure longer journeys than us boring meatsacks. Stross glosses over years in a few paragraphs, which adds an interesting sense of scale to the novel. Call it…hard-ish sci-fi. And stop snickering.

I suppose I saved the most obvious point for last- yes, Freya is a sex bot. And despite a lack of humans to sex up, Freya still manages to get all kinds of laid over the course of the book- she gets it on with other androids…as well as with a few spaceships and a hotel, to name a few. The thing is, Freya describes everything rather matter-of-factly (again, she’s a sexbot, so this sort of thing’s normal for her). Stross manages to write sex scenes that are usually too damn weird to be conventionally sexy, and they’re glossed over too quickly to be titillating to those with…more obscure predilections. I guess the important takeaway here is that, even after reading a novel about a sexy lady robot, I don’t get impression that I now have a window into the author’s weirder kinks. That’s something I’m rather thankful for, by the way.

So yeah, if you’re in the mood for a fun, whacky adventureabout robots in space, Saturn’s Children might be up your alley. Just…don’t leave the book laying face-up around your house. Try hiding it under your bed, or at the back of your closet instead.

That’d be a better place for it, right?

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