Jul 17 2014 3:00pm

Banking on the Hugos: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

Charles Stross is a mainstay on genre award ballots every year; 2014 marks his seventh appearance on the short list for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. There’s good reason for these accolades because when it comes to plausible and well-thought out future scenarios, few can invent better scenarios than Stross.

Neptune’s Brood, in this case, imagines a post-human, far future where we as humanity have become a thing of the past often referred to as Fragiles. The novel is many things, but a primary thrust revolves around economics in the future and a supposed defrauding scam as it features Krina Alizond-118 on her journeys through the galaxy.

Neptune’s Brood is a sequel to Stross’s 2006 novel Saturn’s Children (also nominated for a Hugo), set thousands of years into the future beyond that novel (itself already far into humanity’s future). Stross takes the post-human universe he created in the previous novel and builds a framework for the economics of the milieu while telling a story that has much in common with a mystery/thriller while also focusing on the notion of identity of the individual. Heady stuff, no?

The novel focuses through first-person narration on Krina Alizond-118 as she searches for her missing “sister” Ana Graulle-90 (which in this sense indicates they are cloned from the same being). Krina, with her deep knowledge of the history of accounting and banking, manages to get passage on a space vessel after being convinced to offer her services as a banker. It isn’t long before Krina becomes involved with interstellar pirate bankers, and eventually receives body modification to become a mermaid on the water world of Shin-Tethys in order to search for Ana. On top of all of that, Krina tells us, she has a stalker and discovers what amounts to a 2,000-year old money laundering scam which hinges on an object which might be in the possession of her sister. So yeah, lots of stuff going on here.

However, I didn’t fully connect with a lot of the story. There were multiple info-dumps throughout, many of which begin with Krina stating that she was going to tell us a story. In one such instance Krina even says “I am now going to bore you to death with the political economy of Shin-Tethys.” I realize there’s a heavy dose of snark in that statement, but it it still bothers me that a character would tell us she is going to bore us to death—it’s almost an invitation to skip ahead. A lot of the info-dumps relay the minutia of the future banking system (slow, medium, and fast money) and how Krina is able to circumvent the system as well as the two-thousand year old FTL-scam which brings Krina more focused on finding her sister. While the concept is quite intriguing, at times I felt lectured at, like I was reading an academic piece rather than a work of fiction. In the end, I can see why the novel would work for so many people, while realizing it didn’t fully work for me. But this is only half the discussion since…

In terms of its worthiness and chances on winning the Hugo Award for best novel, Neptune’s Brood does indeed seem like the type of novel that should be at least short-listed. It takes a rather unexplored concept—economics—and couches the discussion of that concept in a (relatively) familiar far-future setting, including elements of the post-human and adventure narratives. In other words, Stross strikes a good balance between experimentation with a new approach and a grounding in familiar territory.

So where does this rank against the other Hugo nominees? Although Neptune’s Brood has received its share of deserved praise, I’m not sure this is Charlie’s year. On the other hand, this convention is practically in the British author’s own backyard, so there may be some local support building to push Neptune’s Brood to the top.

Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes for SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
It's kind of frustrating that Charlie has written better stuff that has gotten nominations much more than outright awards.

This is a good book (with a concept worthy of exploration and speculation) but he's executed better, IMO. I do wonder that if in some sense Charles has become a perennial name that casual voters recognize and will nominate, especially given a British Worldcon.
Robert H. Bedford
2. RobB
His shorter stuff has worked better for me, personally. I like what I've read of the Laundry books and do want to try his Merchant Princes books. But this one...a bit frustrating.
Deana Whitney
3. Braid_Tug
Okay, I did not know this was connected to another work. But I'm not that familer with his work overall.

I enjoyed the modified Jane Austen quote he threw in the middle of the book. Since some of the novel almost approached that style of social commentary.

But this is what I had to say to myself after reading the book:
Lots of World building. Not all dump at once, but built up.
Breaks the 4th Wall to do so, as letters to the reader. Bit like Terry Pratchett at times. Metahumans = AI are our future selves. Sometimes repetitive when she is self-reflecting, like right before the end. Would read more from him again. Would not read this story again.

So, the book goes to my 4th spot.
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
Only Charlie Stross would have the guts to base a novel on a combination of a Paul Krugman paper and a Monty Python skit. But even Stross couldn't pull it off. There's much to admire in Neptune Brood - the Hard / Mundane SF future that still offers space travel, the thought that went into the economics and law of his posthuman society. Much to admire, but little to enjoy. I liked Saturn's Children better.
D. Bell
5. SchuylerH
I thought that Neptune's Brood did some interesting things and was, at least, trying for original speculation (I liked the hydrated super-Earth) but Stross can (and will go on to) write better novels than this. Second for me.

@2: If you haven't already, it's probably worth taking a look at H. Beam Piper's Paratime stories first, especially Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

@3: Saturn's Children was a tribute to late-period Heinlein. An interesting idea, if not one I can fully get behind. I think Glasshouse was better. (Also 2006 -> 2008)
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
Neptune's Brood claimed second place on my ballot to Ancillary Justice.
The sub-light economic system of Neptune's Brood was masterfully done and I enjoy things like that. The undersea squid uranium miners are an amazing example of a non-human species.
The background universe of NB with its post-biological human basis has all sorts of room to develop interesting ideas that point back to biologicals and forward to trans/post-human ideas.
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
Same here- interesting ideas, but finishing it was a slog. It's on my 're-read someday' pile, but I'm not hurrying.
Nicholas Winter
8. Nicholas Winter
Both of these novels, though entertaining, suffer from feeling Stross was trying too hard to homage to Heinlein, i.e. Freya is an android and in Heinlein's Friday, the title character is named Friday who was an Artificial Person, the day named for Freya.
9. Ithilanor
I'll agree with the crowd here. Neat ideas, great worldbuilding...but poorly presented with weak characterization. Not Stross's best work. I'm probably putting it #3 on my ballot, after Ancillary Justice and Parasite.
Nicholas Winter
10. mutantalbinocrocodile
I liked this much more than most people. I didn't actually have a problem with the infodumping--if your narrator is an academic, then it's a natural outgrowth, and the actual exploration of plausible fiscal instruments for a hard sci-fi interstellar world was a major innovation and intellectually fascinating. Plus I do feel that the humor was more than just "snark"; the wit was there throughout the financial infodumps; they were actually some of the best writing in the book. But there's no denying that they were HARD, and the conclusion is deeply moving if you already know quite a lot about finance and the concept of Jubilee (and have a hard-left streak to your politics) but pretty incomprehensible if not.

I disagree with the allegation of weak characterization across the board. I found Krina to be an individual, distinctive voice (honestly I found her much more engaging than Breq--weak characterization is the main reason I'm not with majority sentiment on Ancillary Justice. And I don't have a problem with her lack of intense emotional connection to her sister. . .because that isn't her real interest or motivation (spoiler avoiding). However, it is an issue that the other characters, particularly the villains, are quite cardboard. Also, the whole novel just doesn't seem to hang together dramatically--while it becomes obvious in a plotty way what the point of the whole chapel storyline was, dramatically it feels tacked onto a different, better book that starts on Shin-Tethys.
Steven Halter
11. stevenhalter
mutantalbinocrocodile@10:Yeah, I recall that there were some pretty funny bits in the "info dumps" if you happen to be reasonably following economics discussions.
Another really neat thing about NB is how Stross has built an interstellar civilization based in physics as we know it.
Humans don't handle radiation and other hazards of space travel well? Replace them with a post human species that does better.
No faster than light? Embrace this and show how interstellar colonization could happen and give an economic basis.
Fermi paradox and a general lack of aliens? Let post human evolution fill the niche.
Cool stuff.
Nicholas Winter
12. mutantalbinocrocodile
@11, I think this was also why I was more impressed by Krina as a character than many of the other readers. She's an academic (it's not really a severe spoiler that she is engineered to be an ideal academic), and academics DO talk like that, and don't care a whole lot whether nonspecialists think their jokes are funny. Agree with you about the real-world physics. Very impressed overall, but I just wish Stross could have dispensed with the cardboard cutout villains. Especially--do you STILL have to knee-jerk hate religion even when it's based around biology and your clerics are named Gould and Dennett (again, funny, but also unidimensional). The religious nature of the concept of Jubilee mitigates this a bit, but I would really need to see better villains than those guys, Sondra, etc. to put this in first.
Nicholas Winter
13. bookworm1398
In most sci fi/ fantasy books trying to make sense of the economics just leads to books thrown against walls. I was thrilled to see this book dealing with financial issues in a realistic way and making it central to the plot - I love the book for that regardless of anything else.
Soon Lee
14. SoonLee
Not Stross' best work but if it gets the Hugo, it'll be a worthy winner. I really liked the explorations of instellar economics in a non-FTL setting: Stross is an intelligent writer.

Bonus points for the Monty Python reference.

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