2009 Hugo Best Novel Nominee Spotlight: Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children is a 2009 Hugo Award nominee for Best Novel.

Saturn’s Children (Ace) is an adventure yarn of the road-trip sort. Narrator Freya Nakamichi-47, an everywoman trained for work made obsolete by social changes, gets snared in a very complex web of schemes and counter-schemes aimed at solar-system-wide conquest, involving stolen and appropriated identities, lies and half-truths, true love and brutally imposed slavery, and a great deal of travel through a variety of exotic locales. There is sex and violence and pursuit and stealth and travel via unusual devices and the whole deal.

In the end, some schemes foil each other, some are set back for a mix of reasons foreseen and surprising, and our heroine makes some context-changing decisions of her own. It’s a classic sort of framework and Charlie Stross works it well. So first and foremost, this is a ripping yarn that kept me reading past my bedtime and in moments stolen in the midst of other errands.

But Stross isn’t in the habit of doing just the same old thing, and hasn’t started doing so here.

The setting of Saturn’s Children is really distinctive. Parts of it remind me of some of the segments in Clifford Simak’s classic fix-up City, some suggest a few other inspirations, but much of it is (to me at least) genuinely fresh. It takes place a few centuries from now, and humanity’s been extinct for most of that time. We last long enough to produce genuine synthetic intelligences and to lay the foundations of a society spanning the solar system and with colonies on its way to nearby stars, and then we fade.

The reasons for this aren’t known to the narrator, and aren’t the point. I found that refreshing all by itself. This is a story about life within a situation, not fundamentally about puzzle-solving with regard to its origins, in a tradition that I associate with works like Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang.

What does matter to the story is that humanity left a really awful legal situation in which all the other people are made to be owned. The closest thing to freedom a person of Freya’s era can have is a personal corporation which is her nominal owner; the law we left recognizes corporate entities fine, just not the independent rights of a person who isn’t homo sapiens. Ninety percent of the people in Saturn’s Children‘s future are outright slaves of the aristocratic few. And nobody’s independence is all that secure, because corporations can be bought and manipulated. It’s a nasty environment that gives rise to great dramatic hooks.

Freya has an additional problem in being part of an early synthetic lineage created before humanity’s extinction to be sex slaves. The early lineages tend to resemble homo sap. and our sundry fantasies—Stross includes a lot of reference to manga and anime conventions like bishonen and bishojo styles of build and appearance. (Hey, I remember when “Japanimation” was widely held in fandom to be this passing fad that’d never last or attract significant Western audiences. Most of thirty years ago, now, that was.) Later lineages, freed of concern for pleasing the now-gone creator race, tend to be smaller, to take advantage of square-cube efficiencies in space and resource needs. Freya is physically and mentally a throwback, unwelcome among much of the masses and barely tolerated (if that) by many of the genuine aristos. We meet her contemplating suicide, and the challenge of motivation to keep living is crucial to the story.

This made for fascinating reading to me, but also made Freya less sympathetic to me than she might have been for purely personal reasons. It happens that I’m in the early stages of a really radical overhaul of my own lifestyle and body in response to several overlapping and largely unsuspected medical crises. (When your new doctor pauses early in his examination to say “I’m genuinely surprised you haven’t had a stroke yet”, drastic measures are in order.) These come on the heels of several years of growing depression, which scared me into action when I realized that I was courting suicide via self-neglect. So I’m doing something Freya pokes at but cannot make herself do, and am surrounded by others doing the same.

Part of me therefore kept admonishing her, “C’mon, Freya, I’m doing this without the advantage of 150 years’ prep. You can do it. Get with it. It beats the misery you’ve been in.” However, my disagreement with Freya’s decisions—and, perhaps even more strongly—the thoughts she never allows to rise to conscious consideration—never made her feel uninteresting to me. I wished her well and kept wanting to know what would happen next. That may sound simplistic, but there are otherwise excellent books that don’t manage it, and I like to stop and acknowledge when the simple pleasures get gratified along with the more rarified ones.

It is of course easy to criticize someone else’s worldbuilding, and hard to do it oneself. I found Freya and her milieu very engaging, and full of the kind of weird complexity that feels most real to me. There are a few places where I think Stross may have missed some possibilities, but rather than belabor them here, I’ll be spinning off a separate piece (on the weekend, I hope) on the general theme of sf and real-life approaches to self-definition and self-transformation. I wasn’t thrown out of Saturn’s Children with that awful sense of something just plain not working, at any point, and I was repeatedly fascinated and delighted with details that surprised me and yet felt altogether right given the initial setup.

One of the things I most love in storytelling is the transformation of familiar to unfamiliar, and vice versa. Stross does this really very well indeed. Freya’s encounters with plants and animals, for instance, are for her encounters with mysterious and probably dangerous organic replicators using amazingly weird networks of nano-machines and control schemes very unlike the ones that drive most of her society. Life itself is strange to her, while a fluidity of memory and self-conception are familiar and even often welcome. Her outlook seems right for her situation, and although she lacks a comfortable home in her own here-and-now, she’s very much not just a mouthpiece for early 21st century (or mid-20th century, or whatever) views. The unfamiliar landscape we journey through is in part her own perceptions and the things she can take for granted or be mystified by.

Finally, I must call out one of the most fiendish puns I’ve read in sometime. Freya spends much of the book acting as a courier for mysterious goods, including what she doesn’t know enough biology to think of as an egg. An ambusher demands it, in a threat including this: “The encapsulated bird your conspirators sent you to fetch. The sterilized male chicken with the Creator DNA sequences. The plot capon. Where is it?” I came perilously close to a spit take right there.

So. Highly recommended for your SF adventure needs!


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