It’s a way better book than Neptune’s Brood. Totally fascinating. The idea is that human beings have died out, but that robot society is still organizing itself within the parameters that the humans left behind. Thus, robots are only free if they’ve established corporations to buy themselves. The government is extremely anarchic because robots can’t legally vote in any of the defunct nations that humans have left behind. And robots have this strange love/hate relationship with their own freedom, wherein they want to be free (because they’re built in humanity’s image) but also want to find some other robot to serve (because they’ve all been built with a purpose in mind and now they feel a bit useless). Am liking it a lot. I wonder if this augurs a new phase of science-fiction reading in my life.
I finished Neptune’s Brood. It was so thoughtprovoking. It reads like someone finished Debt: The First 5000 Years, and then thought, “Now, I can write the most kick-ass science fiction novel ever.”
Basically, the conceit of the novel is that seven thousand years from now, interstellar colonization is well under way, but it’s incredibly expensive: Equipping and launching a colony ship takes the equivalent of an entire planetary GDP. And in order to fund interstellar colonization there’s this currency called slow money, which are basically bitcoins that need to be countersigned across interstellar distances by banks in other solar systems. It’s all complicated. But basically, the book is taking the idea of Debt, which is that originally there existed currencies that were only used in great purchases. Like, there were currencies that you only used to buy wives. Or only used to buy slaves. You didn’t use these currencies to buy bread. They were for big endeavors. And they were basically a way of keeping score. They had a highly abstract meaning that’s kind of different from how we think of money now.
And, in Stross’ world, slow money is similar. It’s a currency that you (basically) only use to colonize planets. You spend lots of money in order to colonize a planet, and then the new colony owes that money to you. And the only way for them to repay that money to you is for them to, eventually, send out colonies of their own, which will, in turn, owe money to them. It is super cool, just trust me on this. The plot and story and characters…not so cool.
Now, though, I’m reading the first book Stross wrote in this universe: Saturn’s Children. And I’m only partway through, but this one is even better, because it kind of has a human aspect to it? It’s told from the point of view of a sexbot in a world where mankind is extinct. The whole solar system is under the control of robots, and they’ve created their own complicated society, and human-oriented bots (like sexbots) feel pretty out of place. So there’s a pathos there. This sexbot (and her brethren) doesn’t feel like there’s any reason for living. I like it. I like it alot.
I read Stross’ Accelerando back when it came out (a decade ago!), and though I enjoyed it I was left with zero desire to read more work by him. However, I recently picked up one of his latest books, Neptune’s Brood, and found myself enjoying it. The book is about some sort of futuretastic interstellar banker who’s on a secret mission that (halfway through the book) still hasn’t been explained. The narrator has a pleasant, conversational voice, and the book is mostly fun because it’s full of gosh-wow world-building and interesting treatises on futuretastic interstellar economics. In fact, part of me wonders if the book wouldn’t be better if it dispensed with the plot entirely and just kept the treatises. I mean, seriously, I think anyone who enjoys this book would actually enjoy it a lot more if it didn’t have this weird caper-y plot. Like what if it was just about an interstellar banker who went through the day doing banker things and thinking about banker stuff? I feel like that would be a lot more interesting, because when you read a book like this, you basically have two questions: a) How does all this cool stuff work? and b) what would it actually be like to live in this place?
And while this book is doing an alright job of answering the first question, it actually does little to answer the second question, because everything we’re viewing is an exception. We’re not looking at a person’s ordinary life; instead, we’re looking at an extroardinary adventure that they’re having. And that, to me, is less interesting. Personally, I wonder what it would be like to live in this post-human world? What do people work for and strive for? What do they want? How do they spend their days?
I also find myself rolling my eyes, sometimes, at the prose. As soon as I started reading the book, I remembered that Stross has his own unique and very dense prose style. Which is interesting, and it does carry its own baroque beauty. But it feels like too much. There are all these words in there, but many of them don’t really mean anything. For instance, take the following passage:
“An hour later, I arrived at a docking node in an old part of the station. It was all grubby metal and delaminating anticorrosion treatments, the lights flickering, ventilation ducts howling mournfully behind rattling panels. Fat umbilical trunks snaked between nodes and across exposed walls, floors, and ceilings, their papery shrouds rippling in the breeze: Odd gelatinous globules hang quivering from leaky pipes , their surfaces fogged and filthy with trapped dust and fluff. There was a marked lack of life in this place, a sense that here the bones of the world were showing through the skin.”
What is a delaminating anticorrosion treatment? What’s a fat umbilical trunk? What’s a node? When a wall or floor is exposed, what does that mean? What are the papery shrouds? Are the papery shrouds referring to the trunks or to the walls? What are the odd, gelatinous globules? What surfaces are fogged and filthy? Is it the surfaces of the pipes? Or of the globules?
What it all adds up to is that you’re in some kind of space station and there’s metal and it’s a bit run-down. The image never gets much clearer than that, because none of the descriptions ever feel like they really come together. Instead of describing all this stuff, it’d be better to see just one thing clearly.
But I understand why authors don’t want to do that. When they say ‘station’ they don’t want you to be thinking of Deep Space Nine or Babylon Five; they want to convey the sense that this is a really alien and different environment. But I think that’s a really tall order, and that the attempt to comprehensively sketch out the environment just leads to paragraphs upon paragraphs of description like the above, where zillions of words are expected to little effect.