Saturday, 22 August 2009

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2009

What might happen if the human race became extinct in a couple of centuries time? In particular, what would robots, computers, and other intelligent machines left behind do? This question is basically the starting point for Stross' Hugo short listed novel. The central character of Saturn's Children is a particularly obsolete robot, designed as an escort - an intelligent sex toy - for the men who no longer exist. Freya Nakamichi-47 is scraping a living, her unfashiionable body shape an unwelcome reminder to other robots of a subservient past, when she accidentally kills a member of the new machine aristocracy and has to take a dangerous job to escape from Venus.

Apart from the basic idea - it's certainly ingenious to wonder about the fate of an intelligent sex toy when there's no one to sleep with - Stross taps into many familiar themes from the science fiction genre, with a twist each time. For example, this is really a coming of age story, a staple of the genre, but who ever heard of a coming of age story with a central character already two hundred years old? Or the space journey from Venus to Mercury, courtesy of a space pod with an irritating chirpy personality which functions by having sex with its passenger during the whole trip: it has to properly cocoon and pad the internal orifices of Freya's body, and why not make this as pleasurable as possible for both of them?

This is a novel that Robert Heinlein could have written, if hed been able to drop some of his prejudices and sexual obsessions. It has strong parallels with Friday, one of the best of his later novels. And this is not the only Heinlein novel which Stross either parallels or refers to in Saturn's Children. I noticed quick references to (short story) The Green Hills of Earth and The Number of the Beast, and I Will Fear No Evil, among others. Other writers have updated Heinlein, of course: John Barnes' Orbital Resonance is a particularly successful example. But Stross goes beyond just modernising one of the most famous science fiction authors. Heinlein was never particularly interested in robots; the artificial intelligences in his books are larger and fairly sessile: ship's computers, or the computers to run the services of a city. Thinking and writing about the design and built-in limitations of robot brains is distinctly Asimovian, Stross effectively updating the Three Laws of Robotics for today's readers. To bring together two such contrasting authors in this way is no mean feat.

Stross also has something to say about racism, servitue, identity, and theories of sociological evolution through this story. There is more to Saturn's Children than appears on the surface. Given these themes, it is not surprising that another novel he refers to is 1984.

Why the title? The reference is to Roman mythology (strictly speaking, Greek mythology as adopted by the Romans). Saturn, ruler of the Titans, bore a series of children by Rhea (not so co-incidentally the name of the first of Freya's robot model, from whom all their personalities are derived with a small amount of randomisation). When each child was born, Saturn swallowed them, because of a prophecy that one of them would overthrow him as ruler of the universe, as he had his own father. Eventually, Rhea deceived him, giving him a stone instead of a baby and bringing up Jupiter in secret, to eventually fulfil the prophecy. There is clearly a connection with the supplanting of humanity by their robot creations, as well as resonances between the personalities in the myth and the various bodies in the solar system named after them in a story which involves a lot of interplanetary travel.

The biggest problem with this edition is nothing to do with Charles Stross (at least, I hope he wasn't involved in the decision). At the back, there is something which has now become common in genre fiction, the excerpt from a new title, "if you enjoyed this book, you might like...". I am not a big fan of this in general, even when the excerpt is by the same author, and this is a particularly strange example. Michael Cobley''s Seeds of Earth seems from the chapter published here to come from a branch of the science fiction genre extremely remote from Saturn's Children, and I would judge it unlikely to appeal to the readers who enjoyed this: they might do, if they pick it up some other time, but the contrast between the two is jarring. Surely the point should be to encourage the reader to try it, not pick a random entry from the publisher's new releases which is more likely to put the reader of the excerpt off buying it. Perhaps in this case, the excerpt should have been accompanied by, "if you didn't think much of this novel, one you might prefer instead is...".

I was reading this - at home, not attending - during the 2009 WorldCon, Anticipation. So I was in the middle of Saturn's Children when the winners of this year's Hugo Awards were announced, including the best novel, the category for which it was short listed. Did it win? No. Did it deserve to win? I can't actually answer that, as I haven't yet read all the short listed novels. However, I did think it would have been a better choice than the actual winner, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Good though that is, I felt that Saturn's Children has a lot more to say and is a bigger achievement. It renews some familiar, well loved, parts of the science fiction genre for the twenty first century. My rating: 8/10.

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