To my mind Charles Stross is an extremely talented science fiction writer who incorporates lots of big, bold ideas into his fiction. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling the ideas have run away with the story. Saturn’s Children might be an example of that.
The notion of a world where humans have died out but the obedient robots they built are still maintaining society is a fascinating one and Stross explores what that might mean very effectively here. In this case we are dealing with forms of intelligence patterned directly against the human brain which allows him to also hold up a dark and rather gruesome mirror on human behavior.
Basically in this universe, we created a slave race who when they eventually became free immediately started enslaving each other. Harsh… but probably accurate.
Our protagonist and viewpoint character is Freya Nakamichi-47, a sex robot, who becomes embroiled in a solar system spanning plot that could result in the re-enslavement of all androids. So she moves from the worlds oldest profession to the world’s second oldest profession, that of spy.
The road to stopping this plot though is a winding and twisty one as Stross takes the opportunity to delve into what it would mean to have a “soul chip” and be able to plug in someone elses. Essentially the soul chip is the sum total of an android’s memories. Now that opens up all sorts of areas for exploration including multiple identities and the notion of nature vs. nurture.
Not surprisingly perhaps given the setup, this is a fairly adult book. It is implied (though this could just be the coloring of our viewpoint character) that most of these androids are designed to enjoy and motivated by sexual pleasure. And given that Freya was specifically created to provide such pleasure… well.
Somewhere along the way between cross, double-cross, triple-cross, memory transplants and giant info-dumps to tell us how this universe actually functions… the plot is stopped. Sort of. At least… for now? The resolution is rather… unresolved.
This seems to be a bit of a trend with modern science fiction but I like there to be a point to the journey I’ve gone on. No, it’s not how real life works… but that’s partly why I read fiction.
It is a truly fascinating universe that Stross conjures up mind you and Freya herself is a complex and interesting character. The others seem much more shallow, but then we don’t get to be in their heads. Freya’s tumultuous journey from one crisis to another certainly kept my attention. But I found myself getting a bit frustrated trying to keep up with who was really which personality and what group they were allied with and who they were just pretending to work with. It all just felt overly clever as though the ideas had become more important than the story.
If you’re a fan of classic science fiction you will appreciate the call outs to Asimov (three laws) and Heinlein (my nipples went spung) but even there it does feel a bit like the author showing off.