Book Review: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross.
I wouldn’t say Charles Stross is one of my favorite authors, but he’s written enough good stuff that it tends to draw my attention. And so, while perusing the shelves at the library, I decided to give Neptune’s Brood a read. And y’know what? I’m pretty glad I did.
Neptune’s Brood is technically a sequel to Stross’ earlier novel, Saturn’s Children. I say technically because it’s set thousands upon thousands of years after Saturn’s Children, without any characters or major plot threads from the first book coming through. Still, the universe of Neptune’s Brood is built on the same foundation– after the extinction of mankind, sentient robots take over and build a new society of their own. Of course, this being the far future, these aren’t clanky “Danger Will Robinson!” robots– but rather super-advanced beings made up of nano-technology “cells” (referred to as “mechanocytes”), which they can alter at will (though not without effort) in order to deal with hostile environments such as deep space vacuum, hostile exoplanets, and so on.
The novel centers on a young (ish) android, Krina Alizond-114, as she makes her way to a water planet (populated by robo-mermaids and sentient cyber-squids), in search of her disappeared sister … as well as a great treasure that holds a terrible secret. So, on the surface, it’s pretty standard stuff. But, of course, it wouldn’t be a Stross novel without some kind of weirdness built in, and Neptune’s Brood certainly delivers. Namely, it’s a space opera … about economics.
It’s more interesting than it sounds, I swear.
In a typical space opera, characters zip around the galaxy from planet to planet without much trouble at all, and only the barest nods to little things like ‘physics.’ Neptune’s Brood stays well away from this problem, and in fact, embraces it. In the world of Neptune’s Brood, interstellar travel is possible … only it takes a long, long time. Centuries. Millennia. Of course, having a crew of robots who can put themselves into stasis, or even be downloaded into new bodies upon arrival makes this slightly more feasible. On the other hand, interstellar travel and colonization is also ludicrously expensive … which is where Slow Money comes in.
One of the central conceits of Neptune’s Brood is the deliniation between Fast Money and Slow Money. Fast Money is something you’re already familiar with– it’s the cash in your wallet, or in your bank account. Slow Money is different– it’s a special sort of tender established for trade in between interstellar colonies, light years apart. One Slow Dollar is worth something around ten million Fast Dollars, so that kind of stuff is kind of a big deal. It’s a really fun idea, one that kind of reminded me of Issac Asimov’s psychohistory in that it’s a new future technology based on something other than circuit boards and atomic energy.
The theme of space-economics (and space-capitalism, and space-fraud, and so on) runs throughout the book. Not only in Krina’s outlook on things, but in just how stuff works. For example, Krina soon falls in with the dashing Count (as in accountant) Rudi Crimson, a dashing space-pirate/freelance insurance underwriter. Oh, and Rudi looks like a giant bat, though that doesn’t have much to do with anything.
So yeah, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a weird book.
It’s a good kind of weird, though, and I dare say that Neptune’s Brood is my favorite Stross novel of the stuff I’ve read so far. It’s a bit more coherent than Saturn’s Children, and the economics angle is more approachable than the British spy novel references and coding talk in the Laundry novels. For me, at least. Your mileage may vary.
This isn’t to say the book’s without flaws (however minor). The biggest thing is that Stross has a tendency to “cheat” when it comes to first person perspective, in that he’ll work in little passages here and there in which we see events unfolding that Krina could have no possible idea about. Then again, it’s mentioned that Krina’s writing a report after the fact, so I gueeeess you can let it slide. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a quirk of Stross’ that I’ve noticed before.
On top of that, the ending is a bit rushed, if not abrupt. It seems to build up to a big climax, and then, uh … stops. On the one hand, it makes sense in context (Krina’s an accountant, not a combatant), but on the other, it would’ve been nice to see Stross fire things up a bit. As it is, it feels like Stross almost ran out of steam towards the end … but even with this complaint, the rest of the book makes up for it.
All and all, Neptune’s Brood is a fun romp of a novel, and a good place to start reading Stross, if you haven’t before– and also if you have a high tolerance for transhumanist craziness.