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Saturn's Children by Charles StrossUK edition2 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI usually enjoy Charlie Stross’s work when he’s getting his otaku geek on. But man, what a chaotic catastrophe this book is. With Saturn’s Children, Stross has attempted to concoct some bizarre cross-genre hybrid of cloak-and-dagger spy novel, hentai anime, socio-historical commentary, and post-cyberpunk space opera. And in the attempt, he slips and falls splat on his bottomnal regions. This novel wants it all. It’s very openly a Heinlein homage, but we’re talking late-career Heinlein, perhaps the period of the man’s literary life not so many fans might consider worthy of homage. Given that swell books like The Atrocity Archives and Iron Sunrise have shown Stross is a guy who can pull this kind of thing off if he really sets his mind to it, I find myself scratching my little head over how crazily he let the whole excessive affair get away from him.

It all begins promisingly. Ditching, at last, the Singularity as any sort of relevant theme, Stross imagines a post-human future in which humanity’s own insouciance, hubris, and (in heroine Freya 47’s words) misplaced priorities led us to develop intelligent robots as slave labor, after which we promptly and mysteriously went extinct, leaving them with no one to serve. In subsequent years these robots have evolved their own civilization and adopted all our own worst traits. A class of “aristos” lords it over everyone, creating, developing, and enslaving their own “arbeiters” in turn. Stross’s point here is to comment on the doomed nature of slave states. Not that this is much of a controversial theme, but it could be put to good speculative use in imagining to what ends humanity might put intelligent robots should we ever invent them. 

Thing is, Blade Runner did this years ago, without nearly such a narrative hodgepodge. Saturn’s Children has one of those madly overworked plots so many people think cloak-and-dagger fiction needs. It’s complex and twisted nearly to the point of parody. If this were a video game — and it could well be — it’d be one of those that, four or five levels in, you realize you can’t beat unless you have the walkthrough on your lap. So many characters come into play, many of whom are duplicates and siblings of one another, that a flow chart is almost necessary to keep track of who’s on what side, who’s switching sides, who’s an ally/enemy this chapter, and what they all want at the end of the day. Stross’s distracting habit of throwing in nudge-wink references, like name-checking John Scalzi and Heinlein, are a little too on-the-nose, though I did get a kick out of one really obscure Gary Numan reference.

The short version is this: Freya 47, a sex robot with no human upon whom to imprint her programmed affections, finds herself on the run after she crosses a powerful aristo named the Domina. Accepting a job as courier for some shady enterprise called the Jeeves Corporation, she ends up zipping throughout the inner and outer system, eventually all the way out to the remote and frozen dwarf planets past the Kuiper Belt, all in aid of a frightening scheme to recreate an actual living human by even more mysterious, clandestine cartels.

Certainly, for a while, the confusion lends the story a degree of suspense. Who really are the Jeeves Corporation, and do they want the biological sample they’ve entrusted to Freya preserved or destroyed? What is up with Juliette, one of Freya’s older “siblings” — both of them were built from the original template of their “mother,” Rhea — and why has she gone missing? Or has she? One problem the story runs into is that so many of its characters are the same character, just in different incarnations depending on which “soul chip” they've got plugged in to their minds. I get that this is part of the point of establishing an all-robot society, but it eventually becomes a real chore simply to tell anyone apart. Jeeves has siblings on many of the worlds Freya visits — Mars, Callisto — but one of them is a traitor. Or is the original the one with something to hide?

Look, I don’t mind complex, multilayered plots with secrets lurking beneath the surface. Love ’em, in fact. But this simply redefines overkill. Towards the end it gets to be a lot like taking a hit of acid, spinning around in a circle for a full minute, then trying to walk a straight line through speeding traffic. So Juliette is really this character and the Domina is really this other person, and...ah, screw it. While we’re at it, if the fear that the robot aristos have, concerning the arrival on the scene of a living human (a “pink goo replicator,” one of the moments of true Strossian wit that shines through the plot’s strobe-light lunacy), is that it will drive them all into their default “helpless slave” programming, why does the group Freya finds herself involved with seem to think they can possibly control one, and use it to dominate other aristo factions?

The notion of free will, and how, like, not having any really sucks, is touched upon, but only superficially. (The book opens with Asimov’s Three Laws helpfully, but rather pointlessly, reprinted.) The whole question of whether anything we can sensibly call “free will” even exists at all is one that has kept philosophers employed for a few millennia now, and Saturn’s Children adds little of substance to the debate. Mostly there’s lots of dashing about space willy-nilly, some pretty steamy robot sex (someone’s been enjoying his collection of Heavy Metal magazines from the ’70s), and more dashing about, with Freya menaced by this, that, or the other baddie, about whose real identity and motives we’re never completely sure.

I’ll tell you what I did like, and that was Stross’s physical evocation of his robotic future. If nothing else, this is a tremendously imagined milieu, with imagery often deeply haunting, such as in the necropolis built out on a remote and lonely stretch of Martian desert, commemorating the final failed human missions to that world. Or the city on tracks that rumbles slowly across the equator of Mercury. Or the experimental habitats on Eris, a bleak and frozen worldlet in the dark vastness beyond the Kuiper Belt. I drank these environments in lustily. It’s a lucid, textured, breathing artificial future that often utterly hypnotized me, and the sort of thing I wish more authors had the imagination to bring to their own space operas. If only Stross had given his future a story far less a shambles than this, he’d have had a next-gen SF classic on his hands here.

Followed by Neptune’s Brood.