Saturn's Children

by Charles Stross

Cover image

Series: Freyaverse #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 2008
ISBN: 0-441-01594-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 323

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Two hundred years after the extinction of mankind, the solar system is run by their former servants: robots programmed to do all the difficult work of keeping things running. Despite the fact that their masters have died after Earth's environmental collapse, the basic structures persist, ready for humans to walk back into. Some robots have found ways to step into the roles of proxies for now-leaderless corporations and keep the rest as slaves, enforced via chips that trigger the programming that forces them to obey humans. Human-form bodies have fallen out of fashion (why move that much mass around?) in favor of chibi bodies. Travel around the solar system is possible after a fashion, since robots can take high G and go into fast time, but it's desperately unpleasant.

In this world, our heroine, Freya, has a serious problem. She's part of the last manufactured set of femmebots, bots designed to be sex slaves for humans. The last human went extinct sixty-one years before she was activated. It makes for a certain existential angst.

It's expensive and difficult to teach an android how to interact properly with the world, so one of a line is painstakingly raised through a series of larger bodies and then duplicated to create a family of bots. The one thing Freya has going for her is her sisters, who look out for each other, make sure none of them end up as slaves, and pass around the personality chips of their line whenever any of them die. But after Freya makes a bad enemy and ends up working for a cloak-and-dagger special delivery company to escape them, she finds that her sisters are involved in rather stranger and more political groups than she had imagined. And now they want her involved as well.

Saturn's Children is a twisty cloak-and-dagger thriller in a SF setting with extra helpings of mixed and mistaken identity that only interchangeable personality chips and families of duplicate robots can allow. But more centrally, it's a combination parody and homage to Robert Heinlein, specifically late Heinlein, and more specifically Friday, with a helping of Time Enough for Love.

Please excuse my lack of depth; I'm a generalist, not a specialist. Why bother learning all that biochemistry stuff — or how to design a building, or conn a boat, or balance accounts, or solve equations, or comfort the dying — when you can get other people to do all that for you in exchange for a blow job?

If you just laughed, and laugh more at an overfilled hydraulic pump causing Freya's nipple to go spung, you're in the target audience for this book. If you're now faintly baffled, the likelihood of enjoyment drops, although if you loved Accelerando, Saturn's Children may still be for you.

The idea of a hopelessly romantic femmebot with little or no modesty in a world with no humans inhabited by aristocratic chibis with huge eyes has lots of humor potential. Freya is a ditsy but entertaining first-person narrator with a sense of melodrama that she plays to the hilt. For example, Stross has one of the best SF opening paragraphs I've read recently:

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the final extinction of my One True Love, as close as I can date it. I am drunk on battery acid and wearing my best party frock, sitting on a balcony beneath a pleasure place afloat in the stratosphere of Venus. My feet dangle over a slippery-slick rain gutter as I peek over the edge: Thirty kilometers below my heels, the metal-snowed foothills of Maxwell Montes glow red-hot. I am thinking about jumping. At least I'll make a pretty corpse, I tell myselves. Until I melt.

The idea of a world of automated corporate structures in which nothing political can be effectively changed because it's all keyed to humans, and in which all inhabitants can be turned into willing slaves with the insertion of a chip, is seriously creepy the more one thinks about it. Stross also knows that. He tries to balance the two, and sometimes it works. Mostly, though, the humor and general surreality of the situation wins, and the sections that are supposed to have an emotional punch lack something.

More troubling to me is that Stross is back to the rapid-fire technical jargon that filled Accelerando. He uses it as an alienation technique to show us our world through a distorted lens, which is classic SF, but I think he overdoes it. Calling organic life pink goo replicators is amusing the first few times, but I got rather tired of bits like:

A hand plucks the glass from my side table and replaces it with a full one, complete with a tiny cellulose parasol on top and a red gelatinous blob impaled on it.

filling every page. I wish Stross would drop this technique, or at least ramp it back a lot, since I think it takes the rhythm out of his language and hurts books that would have been much better if they weren't written like technical manuals. The peril scene on Mercury was particularly bad, full of detailed and boring technical descriptions that partly ruined my enjoyment of a great set piece. However, I thought that about Accelerando too, which lots of people loved, so this clearly doesn't bother everyone as much as it does me.

The plot of Saturn's Children is more movie serial than sophisticated novel, with lots of sudden reversals, cliffhangers, and dire peril for our heroine. As that, it basically works, although the general confusion of identity got too confusing and lost my interest at a few points near the climax. I suspect the novel will live or die based on how much one enjoys the Heinlein parody and homage and Freya's narrative voice, though; the plot is primarily there to enable those.

This isn't Glasshouse, which is still the best thing Stross has written that I've read. It annoyed me and bored me at intervals, and I felt indifferent after finishing it. But it's held up in memory better than I expected; a few of the parody bits are both memorable and funny, and Freya's narrative voice has a certain emo parody appeal. I think Stross was in part aiming for a book told from the perspective of a Heinlein heroine, and in parts it accomplishes that very well.

If you like late Heinlein as a guilty pleasure, recommended. The more familiar you are with the things Stross is making fun of, the better chance Saturn's Children will have. If you're fairly new to SF, I'd pass on this one.

Followed, loosely, by Neptune's Brood.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-05-05

Last modified and spun 2015-01-05