Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross
No-one could ever accuse Charles Stross of being short of ideas, and with Saturn’s Children he demonstrates once again why he is one of our most compelling writers of SF. Set in a universe where humanity has expired, the victim of indolence and under-breeding, Saturn’s Children is dominated entirely by a cast of robots. Nothing especially innovative there, but it’s the lengths to which Stross takes his speculations about how robot-kind would cope in the absence of their creators that is so fascinating. Their hard-coded instinct to obey humankind creates issues hundreds of years after the death of the last human, and overshadows their entire, almost feudal, galactic society.
On the surface, it’s a society that is strongly reminiscent of many space opera setups – but the numerous subtle differences all add up to a convincing alternative future, in which an aristo class of owner robots, mostly humanoid and designed to interact with their extinct masters, has come to dominate the rest, mostly designed as they are for specialised, menial functions. There are explicit references to Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, though it is made clear that the programming required in practice is rather more complicated. The books’s heroine, Freya, is from a production line of ‘female’, humanoid robots known as Rhea’s Get, designed as courtesans for human males. In accordance with her design, Freya is utterly incapable of resisting real men – the only problem is she was activated sixty years after the death of the final specimen. Talk about redundant.
Saturn’s Children is Freya’s story – and she comes on like a robotic cross between Belle de Jour and Syndey Bristow as she is gradually drawn in to the machinations of aristos and shadowy cabals all vying to be the first to own a real live human. In a universe where the ruling elite are all programmed for obedience, such ‘pink goo’, as it is known, would be the ultimate superweapon, a megalomaniac’s dream. It’s all pretty damn complicated: robots can wear ‘soul chips’ bearing the memories and personalities of others of their line, so after a while Freya is also starting to be Juliette, while travelling under a pseudonym just to confuse people a bit more. The Jeeves organisation, whose urbane agents are sort of intergalactic fixers in the manner of Wodehouse’s great creation, contains multiple robots on different planets all answering to the name of Jeeves, and by the climax of the book you will probably be relying heavily on Freya’s exposition to get you through who is on whose side.
If I was being critical I would say that Saturn’s Children is a bit too twisty-turny for true comfort – however, there are some many wonderful ideas here, so much subtle humour (I loved the bit with the confused genetic scientists and their naive belief in the need for a T-Rex to live in their biosphere), so many clever references, that I can almost forgive it. Stross has not only created a sassy heroine in Freya, but also a powerful vision of how humanity can impact on the solar system hundreds of years after its own extinction – like Saturn, devouring his children through fear that they might one day supplant him. Recommended, if you’re willing to pay attention.