Published by ACE
Charles Stross is one of the most productive and respected crop of writers in the “New British SF” mini-explosion of writers, having published over a dozen books since 2003, with awards and nominations his output has been both qualitative and quantitative. His most recent novel, or rather the novel which is the subject of this review, Saturn’s Children, is an homage to Robert A. Heinlein and is dedicated to both him and Isaac Asimov.
In the far-future, humanity is all but extinct and the closest remnants are the robots and AIs populating the galaxy. The setting is our own galaxy and the protagonist is Freya-47, a robot made for the sexual pleasure of her human masters to whom she refers as my One True Love. With no masters, what do the slaves do? Well, Stross explores that intriguing question as well as other problems of a human-less future. With no masters to serve, Freya (and her sibs, who are replications of their “mother” Rhea) wanders the galaxy until she is hired to smuggle “pink goo” across the galaxy. Though not explicitly stated, the pink goo is ostensibly human cells which could be used to bring humans back into the galaxy. In one sense, the Pink Goo is a MacGuffin, giving just enough impetus for Freya’s plot and exploration of life without humans. It is never stated why humans are no longer in the galaxy, or even existent for that matter, just that they died off quite rapidly 200 years prior to the events of the novel. While it would be interesting to explore the hows and whys of that disappearance, that isn’t quite the point of Stross’s novel and readers interested in that point would be disappointed if the answer to that question were one for which they were hoping to find in the Saturn’s Children.
Freya constantly references her One True Love bringing focus back onto what her, and all of her kind’s, purpose in the galaxy is. Stross characterizes her enough to make her seem human, until she ponders removing an arm and a leg in order to secure safe passage in the galaxy. In Stross’s economical future, space flight is charged by the pound so a relative “giant” like Freya doesn’t easily find transport for herself. Freya can also reshape her body, give herself new hair or alter her physical appearance to suit her needs, or previously, the sexual whims of her One True Love.
As a copy of a previous robot, Freya’s personality is not wholly her own. In many senses, she is the sum of the parts of her “mother” and “sibs” – the sibs being the robots also copied from her parent Rhea. However, since humans never quite perfected AI, they cloned brains and put them into the robots, which does make for a slightly different slant on the robots.
So, then, Stross provides ample rumination for identity in the future and how circumstances lead to identity. Freya’s jumbled identity isn’t the only one up for debate; she is blocked at several points along her journey and it’s rarely clear just who is employing her and who is trying to stop her. In many senses, this element of the novel lent a heist-like feel to the story.
The circumstances for costly space travel lead to some humorous and quite plausible scenarios involving Freya’s travels across the galaxy. Since she is a sexbot, much of her time is passed masturbating and/or having some kind of sex with her spaceship, or random people she meets as she transports the Pink Goo.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the novel and thought Stross raised some interesting questions even if he didn’t provide clear cut answers. Though I found the plotting slow in some spots, I thought the novel was fairly well balanced between Serious Questions, physical interactions, as well as humorous instances. The only other grumble I can voice, and how big of an issue this is I think ultimately depends on the reader, is that Stross’s robots (Freya specifically) are almost too human. Granted they adhere to unbreakable laws that are explicitly Asimovian in nature, but that can also be interpreted as humans obeying certain laws and mores of society unflinchingly. Freya acts, at times, like a sex-hungry somewhat schizophrenic person with multiple personalities, or at least her actions and thoughts can be interpreted as such. It is her easily changed and removed outer accoutrements that are more effective at driving home the point that she isn’t human. In total Saturn’s Children, if not only for the US Cover of the novel, but for the intriguing story inside the book, looks to be another solid entry in Stross’s quickly increasing bibliography.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford