Neptune's Brood

by Charles Stross

Cover image

Series: Freyaverse #2
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 2013
ISBN: 1-101-62453-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 325

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Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but I wouldn't call it a sequel. It takes place considerably later, after substantial expansion of the robot civilization to the stars, and features entirely different characters (or, if there was overlap, I didn't notice). It also represents a significant shift in tone: while Saturn's Children is clearly a Heinlein pastiche and parody, Neptune's Brood takes its space opera more seriously. There is some situational humor — assault auditors, for example — but this book is played mostly straight, and I detected little or no Heinlein. This is Stross fleshing out his own space opera concept.

This being Stross, that concept is not exactly conventional. This is a space opera about economics. Specifically, it's a space opera about interstellar economics, a debt pyramid, and a very interesting remapping of the continual growth requirements of capitalism to the outward expansion of colonization. The first-person protagonist comes from a "family" (as in Saturn's Children, the concept exists but involves rather more aggressive control of the instantiated "children") of bankers, but she is a forensic accountant and historian who specializes in analysis of financial scams. As you might expect, this is a significant clue about the plot.

Neptune's Brood opens with Krina in search of her sister. She is supposed to be an itinerant scholar, moving throughout colonized space to spend some time with various scattered sisters, spreading knowledge and expanding her own. But it's clear from the start of the book that something else is going on, even before an assassin with Krina's face appears on her trail. Unfortunately, it takes roughly a third of the book to learn just what is happening beneath the surface, and most of that time is spent in a pointless interlude on a flying cathedral run by religious fanatics.

The religion is a callback to Saturn's Children: robots who are trying to spread original humanity (the Fragiles) to the stars. This mostly doesn't go well, and is going particularly poorly for the ship that Krina works for passage on. But this is a brief gag that I thought went on much too long. The plot happens to Krina for this first section of the book rather than the other way around, little of lasting significance other than some character introductions occurs, and the Church itself, while playing a minor role in the later plot, is not worth the amount of attention that it gets. The best parts of the early book are the interludes in which Krina explains major world concepts to the reader. These are absolutely blatant infodumping, and I'm not sure how Stross gets away with them, but somehow he does, at least for me. They remind me of some of his blog posts, except tighter and fit into an interesting larger structure.

Thankfully, once Krina finally arrives on Shin-Tethys, the plot improves considerably. There was a specific moment for me when the book became interesting: when Krina finds her sib's quarters in Shin-Tethys and analyzes what she finds there. It's the first significant thing in the book that she does rather than have done to her or thrust upon her, and she's a much better character when she's making decisions. This is also about the point where Stross starts fully explaining slow money, which is key to both the economics and the plot, and the plot starts to unwind its various mysteries and identify the motives of the players.

Even then, Krina suffers from a lack of agency. Only at rare intervals does she get a chance to affect the story. Most of what she did of relevance to this book she did in the past, and while those descriptions of the backstory are interesting, they don't entirely make up for a passive protagonist. Thankfully, the other characters are varied and interesting enough, and the political machinations and cascading revelations captivating enough, that the last part of the book was very satisfying even with Krina on for the ride.

This is a Stross novel, so it's full of two-dollar technical words mixed with technobabble. However, it shares with Saturn's Children the recasting of robots as the norm and fleshy humans as the exception, which means much of the technobabble is a straight substitution for our normal babble about meaty bodies and often works as an alienation technique. That makes it a bit more tolerable for me, although I still wished Stross would turn down the manic vocabulary in places. This bothers some people more than others; if you had no trouble with Accelerando, Neptune's Brood will pose no problems.

I don't think the first section of this book was successful, but I liked the rest well enough to recommend it. If you like your space opera with a heavy dose of economics, a realistic attitude towards deep space exploration without faster-than-light technology, and a realistic perspective on the hostility of alien planets to Earth life, Neptune's Brood is a good choice. And any book that quotes David Graeber's Debt, and whose author has clearly paid attention to its contents, wins bonus points from me.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-07-12

Last modified and spun 2014-07-13