A Look at Saturn's Children

saturns-children-US-cover This evening I finished reading Charles Stross’ new novel, Saturn’s Children. This came out about two weeks ago and had been much anticipated by those of us who are fans of Stross’ work.

The novel is written in the vein of “If Robert Heinlein was alive today and writing space opera, what kind of book would he write?” The main character is Freya, a sexbot. The main problem for her is that the human race went extinct about 200 years ago, before she was even created, and humanity’s robotic servants are still maintaining their civilization (and struggling to figure out one of their own). It is hard (ahem) when your mission in life is to be a sexual servant to an extinct species. Overall, I didn’t find the Heinlein echoes very much present or compelling, other than the obvious sexbot angle. Perhaps it has been too long since I read a Heinlein novel (like most of 20 years) but this book seemed like Charles Stross, through and through. It reminded me more of Accelerando or Singularity Sky than anything else.

I’m not going to give many spoilers here but the basic plot is Freya is despondent and lost in the world. Aristocratic robots have, since the beginning of their civilization, enslaved 90% of the robots using the legal structures left by the humans. She’s free but poor and, frankly, a bit of a freak by current standards. She agrees, due to desperate circumstances, to act as a courier of goods for people largely unknown (in return for money) and winds up with other machines in pursuits. Hijinks ensue. Shake, stir and then blend.

While I found the novel to be an interesting read and well written in a technical sense, I don’t find myself that compelled by the finished result, looking back on it now. It was fun to read but I doubt if I’d read it again and I’m not sure that I really liked how things tied together in the end. It was all a bit too neat in a way and too much is left both unexplained but also not mysterious enough. I wouldn’t call it a “fluff” novel but it definitely left me with a lot less to chew on than, say, the last Kim Stanley Robinson novel I read, The Years of Rice and Salt, which I thought was a relatively profound meditation on the human experience disguising itself as a genre novel. I wouldn’t say that most of Stross’ work is terribly deep but I’ve always enjoyed the frenetic pace and the way he threw ideas at you, one after another. Both of these are there in this novel but to a much smaller degree, I think, than his previous works.

If I was to recommend a book that captured the Heinlein “feel” to a much greater degree, it would be John Varley’s excellent Red Thunder. This is a book that gets the feel of vibrant optimism and of the “engineer hero” so common in much of Heinlein’s work. A group of lost would-be young astronauts in Florida conspire with a washed up astronaut and his genius (and damaged) engineer brother to build a space ship on their own and fly a mission to Mars. I haven’t liked a lot of Varley’s work in recent years but this book really took me back and definitely had the right attitude for Heinlein.

I’m curious what others who read Saturn’s Children make of it and how it compares for them.

As an aside, I recently read Jon Evans’ Invisible Armies, which I would strongly recommend to the geek set set if they want a straightforward but interesting thriller. It has drug companies taking advantage of ignored third world citizens, relatively non-stop motion, and a hacker character who commits hacks, by and large, that reflect the actual way that hackers work (while glossing over most of the details). Heck, it even throws in a visit to Defcon. I read through that in a day and a half a weekend or two ago.

I’m off to read Steven Heine’s Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up? now.