Saturn's Children By Charles Stross
Ace Books, 2008
Charles Stross's novel Saturn's Children builds on a promising post-human premise: humans die out (for obscure reasons) in the twenty-third century and are replaced by robots, who continue humankind's dream of exploring the universe, settling planets, and building cities. This world resembles the future predicted by science writer Hans Moravec, who claimed that AI and robots will eventually be better than humans at everything and will replace us, becoming our "mind children."
The social structure of Stross's future is a stagnant aristocracy that has inherited the worst human traits. Its robot rulers own the slave-chipped lower classes, the 90% of the population that performs the grunt work. Stross portrays the process of chipping and destroying a robot's free will very effectively. The only way for a robot to be free is to establish itself as an independent self-owned company. A period of time without a job or taking on excessive debt can cause a free robot to become an aristo's property.
Stross dedicated the book to Heinlein and Asimov, and the novel is clearly in the tradition of those writers. Most writers who imitate Heinlein focus on his ground-breaking work of the 40s and 50s; intriguingly, Stross has written a tribute to Heinlein's later sex-saturated novels, such as Friday, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, The Number of the Beast, Time Enough for Love, and Methuselah's Children. These uneven novels tend to be bloated with gratuitous sex, and even worse, gratuitous lectures, by characters that are Heinlein stand-ins. They also disgusted feminists who objected to the depiction of women in the sex scenes. The later novels also had strong adventure elements and interesting future societies, but lack the consistent extrapolation of ideas that characterize Heinlein's early work.
Saturn's Children is heavily influenced by the space opera Friday, which is the best of Heinlein's later novels. Freya Nakamichi-47, the protagonist, is an android sexbot who spends much of the novel either having sex or being involved in spy missions, much like Heinlein's sexy spy-android Friday. Freya's sexual activity is extensive; she ends up screwing everything from an interplanetary probe (no pun intended) to an android Jeeves to a male sexbot to a sexually submissive aristo. The sex does not seem gratuitous, as it often does in the later Heinlein, because a sexbot would presumably be promiscuous; however, the sex is not especially titillating. There is also a heavy layer of S&M to Stross's sex scenes, a proclivity he has displayed before: see some of the sex scenes in his first novel Accelerando.
Freya faces an existential dilemma: since she was created to be a concubine for an extinct race, her skills are as obsolete as a prostitute's in a nunnery. What's a girl to do?
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 palace 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 . . . . Until I melt (3).
Freya's meditations on suicide don't last much longer than the opening paragraph. Stross's work is fast-moving adventure rather than character-based introspection. A page later Freya pisses off a powerful aristo, the Domina, and is forced to flee off-planet.
Freya is offered a chance to be a courier for the mysterious and shady Jeeves corporation, to deliver a package from Mercury to Mars. Since she is desperate for money and has made powerful enemies, she readily accepts the proposal.
Freya is a matter-of-fact, informative narrator who gives us the details of each planet and moon she lands on:
Welcome to Callisto, outermost of Jupiter's four Galilean (major) moons. Callisto is fractionally smaller than Mercury but rather less massive, and beneath its heavily cratered surface (a chewed-up wilderness of ice and rubble) lies a deep, ammonia-laced ocean surrounding a rock core (218).
Freya apologizes for the infodump, telling us that she sounds like a tourist guide, which she does. Nonetheless, Freya's first person infodumping works remarkably well, providing us with a future history, a description of the worlds she travels to, and the societies that have developed on each colonized planet and moon. One of the novel's greatest strengths is the remarkable locations that Freya travels to, such as the rail city on Mercury, or the necropolis on Mars.
The main plot revolves around an attempt to recreate the human race. Various aristo factions want to resurrect people because if they control the recreated humans, then they can use them to enslave the lower classes, which have been programmed to obey their human creators. The novel points out that slave-holding societies tend to stagnate because the rulers oppose any change that would threaten their power.
The spy plot is convoluted and confused, with the requisite betrayals and altered identities. Overly complicated plots seem to be de rigueur for the spy genre, so if that's your sort of thing, you may appreciate this novel. I was not impressed by the surprise identities and convolutions of the plot, and managed to get lost a couple of times.
Science Fiction is always partly about the present, and Saturn's Children contains a lot of social satire. One subplot is about Intelligent Design: the pseudo-scientific religious belief that life developed from a creator rather than through random evolution. For the robots, who were literally created by humans, Intelligent Design appears to be scientific reality. Evolution, or the notion that life rose without design, is a robot religion and scorned by the scientific establishment, the precise opposite of the situation in contemporary America. Stross is satirizing fundamentalists who deny the evidence behind evolution, but at the same time is trying to imagine a situation in which ID would make scientific sense. The satire also places the novel within the Heinlein tradition, if you consider the criticism of fundamentalism that runs through "If This Goes On. . .."
Despite having a city named Heileingrad, Stross distances himself from optimistic views of human space exploration. The novel is a space opera that obeys the rules of Einsteinian physics, with no hyperdrives, or FTL. The narrative occurs within Sol's solar system and realistically describes the rigours of space travel. When Freya is trying to fly from Mars to Jupiter, the process is more difficult that hopping in the Millennium Falcon and flipping the lightspeed switch:
You can get it [a flight from Mars to Jupiter] down to just a year, if you've the money to pay for passage on a fast VASIMR liner—
but the mass ratio is so poor that you'll want to make the trip in hibernation; for every kilogram that arrives, twenty set off. On anything faster than a Hohmann transfer, the excess baggage charges are so monstrous that travelers have been known to amputate their limbs before departure and buy new ones on arrival. Finally, then, there are the nuclear rockets, but they're out of my price range; I'm not a millionaire (151).
Stross has done an excellent job creating a creditable space opera society. Space travel is hideously expensive, takes a long time, and was extraordinarily difficult for the now extinct humans, who were too fragile to easily leave Earth's ecosystem. Robots are better suited for space travel: they don't need to eat, or breathe. They can stand extreme temperatures, radiation, and acceleration.
The chief weakness in Saturn's Children is that it fails to explore the imaginative potential of its premise. Rudy Rucker has suggested that the best SF is gnarly: weird, unpredictable, and quirky. This novel never quite hits the level of weirdness that Stross manages with Accelerando, or in some of his short stories.
Highly intelligent AIs would eventually create a society bizarre and vastly different from humans. Envisioning that future is difficult, but that is the task of an SF writer. The novel's aristocratic social structure reminds me of old fashioned space operas that envision a feudalistic future civilization, because the authors could not imagine anything more original.
Robots that display near-human psychology are easier to write about and sympathize with, but there's little point to writing about robots that are too human; after all, Stross could write about future humans modified with hard drives, chips, and computer interfaces.
To his credit, Stross explains the future history of his world, and makes it logical and internally consistent. He demonstrates how the robots evolved their social structure and psychology. Scientists were never able to create unique forms of AI, so robots have neural patterns so similar to humans that they sleep and dream. Humans created robots to be used as servants and workers, and burned obedience into their templates. Robots have to learn a pattern of behavior, a template that takes years, much as a person has to go through childhood to learn how to function in society. Different robot templates were created and evolved; the ones that resulted in the most obedient robots were mass produced, just as we might breed dogs for loyalty.
Obedience directives are used to control robots. Stross compares the directives to Asimov's three laws of robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov created the laws for his robot stories because he read too many SF stories in which robots go rogue, destroy property, and kill their owners. Why, Asimov mused, would a technologically advanced civilization be dumb enough to design dangerous robots? In Stross's novel, even after humans die out, robots are still programmed for obedience, and controlled by Asimov-like laws, and cannot create a free society.
Although Stross's extrapolated society is logically consistent I'm still skeptical that a future of AI and digitally enhanced brains would stagnate into a hidebound aristocracy. Many robots would be smarter than humans, and could hack into their "Asimov" templates. Think how quickly humans hack into DRM and closed systems like Apple's OS, and then imagine a robot with a faster, digital brain. How quickly could it break through a closed, "Windows-like" operating system and download an open operating system, which it could tweak and alter as it chose? Surely the robots could learn the future equivalent of Linux.
Robots would also want to evolve physically and mentally to make themselves more effective in different environments. It seems likely that a robot society would alter and change continually, as their faster digital brains evolve, mutate, and design new versions of themselves. Robots could run virtual selves in computers: rapidly facing new challenges, and evolving different personalities and skills. They could create fantastic new body types that could work in different gravities and environments. Describing that type of society would result in a different novel, but Stross has not developed the many imaginative and creative possibilities in designing a post-human society.
Overall, Saturn's Children is an entertaining novel that creates a compelling space opera society with an interesting future history. It's a good example of the "new space opera," which combines hard SF with widescreen adventure. Yet Saturn's Children is not as powerful a work as Accelerando, which was as important a novel for the 'oughts as Neuromancer was for the 80s. Saturn's Children displays the glaring limitations of a lack of imaginative verve, and a reluctance to extrapolate the potential of its ideas.