Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location - the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.
In a universe with no faster-than-light travel that's a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of an assassin on Krina's tail, by the 'privateers' chasing her sister's life insurance policy and by growing signs that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.
This is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, 5000 years later.
Charles David George "Charlie" Stross is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His works range from science fiction and Lovecraftian horror to fantasy.
Stross is sometimes regarded as being part of a new generation of British science fiction writers who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera. His contemporaries include Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Liz Williams and Richard Morgan.
It's not for everyone, but I personally love financial sci-fi stories. Mr. Stross blew my mind with Accelerando, but the merchant novels were quite good as well, and one should never forget Rule 34. In fact, I've been enjoying a lot of financial chicanery novels over the last decade and a half. Like I said, it's not for everyone, but it is for the type of person who loves a good heist novel with huge-scale grifters and con-men.
Make no mistake, it's a heist novel, but it happens to be populated by post-humanity robots in an interstellar empire with insurance agents who are pirates, where faster-than-light promises are the best confidence scams, and extinct humanity is gestated in church-owned vats and revered before they're sent to die upon colony worlds as the nominal passed-on wish of humanity's deep past. It was certainly amusing we're referred to as "The Fragile" because we break so damn easily.
Not only were the ideas interesting, but the tale was very humorous at a distance. In reflection, I'm likely to giggle about this one. During the reading, it was a strange mixture of mendicant scholastics, financial mechanics, dancing skeletons, mermaids, and deep, deepwater squids harvesting rich uranium salts from an ocean world. In other words a fantastic ride.
Charles Stross is brilliant and prolific and maybe a bit lazy. That's the best explanation I have for books like Neptune's Brood. It seems clear from his prose and his blog that he gets seized by an idea (this novel starts with a quote from David Graeber's book about debt) and then rapidly cranks out a story on top of whatever intellectual scaffolding emerges from his brilliant noodling. The approach prioritizes creativity over craft, and I find it kind of irksome.
This is a shitty novel. The protagonist's narration is irritating (she says things like "quoth I") and the book's full of cliches and off-putting pop culture references ("the game is afoot"; "a hive of scum and villainy"; "strap yourself in, it's going to be a bumpy ride"; "oh snap" -- the last of these is particularly galling, since there's no other contemporary vernacular in the book). Stross repeatedly reuses archaic words in a word-of-the-day-calendar sort of mode ("barratry", "demesne"). The plot's boring and the ending is abrupt. There is, admittedly, a clever twist near the end (actually, the writing gets a little better, too). But the whole thing seems rushed.
Stross constructs a universe where physics works pretty much the way we understand it to. Travel between stars is very difficult. Humanity can only move mass around at about 1% of the speed of light, but lasers can be used to transmit information between distant worlds in just a few years. Colonized star systems can therefore trade information but not goods. Fortunately, some singularity-ish inventions about copying minds mean that people can travel as information, having new bodies grown for them at their destinations.
Stross posits local currencies within each star system, which makes sense. But the systems trade between themselves in "slow dollars," which are an extremely stable medium of exchange. Stross refers to them explicitly using the word "bitcoin" but he makes it clear that transactions are signed by a certificate authority (a star system bank, its identity axiomatically verified by the origin of its laser), which makes me think he missed the point of bitcoin. He makes some weird assertions about signals being hijackable, too, which make no sense given all the cryptographic signing that's going on.
I'm a little fuzzier on the trade stuff. The idea is basically this: sending a colonization effort to a distant star is really expensive for its backers. Once the colonists arrive and set up their laser, they incur debt in slow dollars to pay for needed specialists who immigrate their minds to the system. Eventually the founders of the new colony get out from under this debt by sending off their own colony ships, which incur their own debts from their parent system, which are used to repay the original lenders.
This is described as a Ponzi scheme, and you can sort of see why -- though it seems absurd on its face that the colonization and development of entire solar systems isn't considered to be wealth-generating.
But I don't understand how minds could be a scarce resource when they can be copied. Individuals could withold the rights to do so, but one can easily imagine the rise of open source colonists, or the existence of a small number of people willing to sell infinite copying rights, making the market collapse. Because astronomical distances make enforcement impractical, there's no interstellar (non-financial) legal framework. And of course new polities historically don't have much respect for (ahem) intellectual property.
Minds are the only resource that Stross offers as a justification for interstellar trade and the elaborate financial mechanisms that are supposed to surround it (scientific development has been stagnant for centuries, and there doesn't seem to be much meaningful cultural exchange). But I don't see how an economy based on selling minds could possibly work. Not only would the new systems not need to incur much debt to get the settlers they require, but it's unclear why the debt-holding systems would care about repayment in a currency that's mostly good for a resource they no longer need. Admittedly, this is less of a problem: I don't have much of a need for gold, but would be happy to be paid in it, because other people do need it. But it still seems a little odd.
These objections don't unravel the novel entirely -- certainly other, better sci-fi novels have succeeded despite larger conceptual problems -- but with the rest of the mechanics decidedly lackluster, the core set of manic financial musings need to be better than they are.
Stross's impressive level of output and real talent for creative thinking seems to be securing him a place in a canon, so if he were ever to read my advice, he should almost certainly ignore it. But I do wish he would slow down a little.
Review from my 2019 reread: 4.5 stars, and by far Stross's finest and most successful "space opera", he calls it (or the publisher did). What it is, is a semi-rigorous exploration of how a much-slower-than-light interstellar civilization & expansion could actually work. I'm not at all sure that it actually would, and I'm not sure why Stross made the process so expensive -- ordinarily, tech stuff gets cheaper, often a LOT cheaper, as progress is made. Stross for some reason posits that scientific and technical progress has largely ceased -- he doesn't really say why or address the issue. But it's a profoundly pessimistic assumption (without any visible means of support), and I've dinged the novel a star because of it. Perhaps unfairly. We'll see. [I changed my mind. The one-impossible thing rule for fiction....]
Otherwise, except for a hurried ending (which the author apologizes for in his online afterword), this is an exemplary hard-SF novel. You've read the publisher's blurb, right? And maybe a couple of other reviewer's takes? (suggestions below, HEED the SPOILER warning!).
OK, the exoplanet stuff I'd totally forgotten. Something-Tethys, a young super-earth waterworld with young, supercharged uranium, too: Tethy's uranium is better than 1% U-235! -- no enrichment needed! All this looks good to this geologist & geochemistry of fissionables sort-of expert. And his call that fission is as good as it will ever get for power (in the next few kiloyears) is defensible. There's certainly plenty of room for improvement in the fission-reactor dept, a process that's been stalled by unfortunate big-govt intervention for 40 years or more. The absurdity of trying to run a technical civilization on windmills and rooftop solar (in Germany!) really needs to be called out, here in the real world. And it's not like fusion power is on the near-term horizon!
Stross's call on Tethys's "blue smokers" -- which are natural seafloor fission reactors, which you really, really want to avoid getting close to (or in!) -- hot stuff! And the exploitation of same -- lots of fissionables needed in a space-based civilization. And the Young Communist squids that mine the stuff? His pal Ken MacLeod was sure to get a good chuckle from that. Not to mention the unique export atomic rocket! It only blows up 1% of the time....
The Crimson Permanent Assurance freebooting merchant-bankers are delightful, from the name on, and provide the surprise ending -- which is pretty good, and lively, and the Bad Mom gets hers. In this universe, "everyone knows" that FTL is impossible -- but what if?
I think I'll leave it at that, and I'm going back to an overall 4.5+ stars here. Too much good stuff for a serious ding, and Charlie needs encouragement to do something else like this. Instead of another tiresome Laundry retread? Well, those do pay the bills.....
So, if you missed this one, or it's been awhile: most highly recommended. Not much of the Pure Quill around. Top quality goods. Not to be missed.
============ Previous stuff ============ According to my booklog notes from 2013, this one was "A/A+, excellent, money fast & slow, slightly nerdy heroine, Bad Mom." Financial SF! Not much of that. I should reread it.
Huh. No real spoilers (I don't think), and interesting insights into the publishing business, and the working style of a good writer. Well worth reading, whether or not you read the novel -- and I think you should!
And Liz Bourke's review is sharp, but SPOILS THE REVEAL! https://www.tor.com/2013/07/18/book-r... Better read after, if spoilers bother you. Note that she picked up on the weakish ending, that Charlie apologized for. As did the io9 reviewer, and others.
But like, bear with me and stuff, k? Because there are different types of drunk, and analogously speaking, this is one of the better ones. I’m not talking about one of those slurry, messy drunks, where you couldn’t find your own ass if somebody paid you to. And I’m not talking about mean drunks or black-out drunks or any of those other kinds of drunks that basically make you temporarily worthless as a human being. This is the kind of drunk where you’re only drunk enough to say and do things you maybe otherwise wouldn’t say or do, and it’s the kind of drunk that ignites that little spark of creativity in your altered mind–maybe you end up naked on your front lawn draped artfully in toilet paper, or write an epic love poem in heroic couplets to that hot person you’ve been ogling for weeks and leave it drunkenly on their voicemail, or, maybe you decide to write a book about humanoid robots colonizing the galaxy 5,000 years in the future, and the main character is a banking historian, and won’t it be fun to give the reader lessons in economics and future space history but then also turn her into a mermaid?! And there are tiny little communists that live at the bottom of this ocean planet, but that’s not really important, moving on.
I may have switched over to Charles Stross being drunk instead of the book in the middle of that convoluted metaphor, but hopefully you get my drift anyway (and besides, who knows, maybe Stross WAS drunk; maybe he’s drunk RIGHT NOW).
Anyway, the book is drunk, also. It’s just like fuck you, I do what I want, and then it launches into a lecture about how money works in the future and about how debt is the way the universe works and blah blah space cons, and it is weirdly fascinating.
Also, I burst out laughing when the main character, Krina, says that she’s fallen among pirates and life insurance underwriters, and how horrible that is, because true facts: life insurance underwriters are the worst. I know this from personal experience.
Okay, now I feel drunk.
So to sum up, this book is awesome but weird and people who don’t like weird things probably won’t like it, and people who do might like it a lot. I liked it a lot. It felt much more cohesive than Saturn’s Children (which takes place thousands of years before this one, so you don’t really need to read it, although it helps with context; I definitely spent way less time being confused in this one because I’d read the first one). Neptune’s Brood is not my favorite book ever, but I loved going on all those weird tangent trips with the narrator and I love mermaids also, and this review probably isn’t very helpful, but it’s what I’ve got, so I guess you can suck it and stuff.
I'm a Stross devotee, and, as usual, I devoured this book almost immediately. And while the book isn't a failure — quite the opposite! — I can't help but feel disappointed.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who's read a Stross book before that he is, to say the least, good at futuristic finance. In just about all of his books, there is, inevitably, an creative, fascinating new economy on display, one perfectly matched to the far-flung worlds of tomorrow yet entirely unexpected. From the Economy 2.0 of Accelerando to the Festival of Singularity Sky to the gaming cryptomarkets of Halting State, economics and trade have always been fascinating elements of his work.
Neptune's Brood is nothing but that element.
3 stars: Despite its flaws, I liked it. 4 stars for ideas, 2 stars for everything else. A classic example of Big Idea Sci-Fi, in both its positives and its negatives. Recommended for sci-fi lovers and anyone interested in a vision of the future who has a high threshold for slogging through plot and lectures on nuclear reactions.
First, I need to point something out for those who just finished the first book in the series. The sequel has absolutely no ties to the first book, apart from happening in the same universe, so be warned if you expect to learn more about Freya - she isn't even mentioned in this book. My husband launched into this book right after he finished the first one, and he didn't enjoy it as much precisely because of this. He said the disconnect was too big at the beginning of the book - it is the same universe, but all the characters are new.
I, however, started book 2 about a year after I read book 1, so I didn't mind the fact that we are told a completely different story a few thousand years in the future from the events of the first book as much. Sure, I would have loved to find out more about Freya and her sibs, but I was happy enough to explore this new evolution of the world introduced in book one.
And it's a fascinating world where humanity (at least a variant thereof) spread into the stars and created a vast society of colonies almost everywhere in the universe close to their point of origin (Earth). I found the structure of their society fascinating. When warp drive or hyperspace or faster than light travel don't exist, interstellar travel takes dozens, sometimes hundreds of years. Even laser uploads via laser arrays, the fastest form or interstellar travel, takes dozens of years. It's fascinating to read about a society that thinks in scopes of centuries and even millennia when founding a new colony or engaging in any type of financial transaction.
The whole financial and economical system is very interesting as well, and, as far as I remember, this is the first science fiction story in which this aspect of a society is explored in so much detail and is so integral to the story. In fact, it's a little bit too integral to the story, and the endless explanations on how slow money works and different fraudulent manipulations thereof were a bit tedious to go through after a while.
The biggest problem of the book, at least for me, was the main protagonist, Krina. She is a very passive character that reacts more than acts on her own. For the duration of the book, she had been a victim of the circumstances, kidnapped, altered, thrown into the deep end of a water planet, etc. And when she finally gathers enough power to have her own agency... the story ends. That was very disappointing, especially when you compare Krina to Freya from the first book.
Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, even if I could have used a little less exposition about the different financial instruments. This is definitely a series worth your time and effort.
Space is big. Hugely, mind-bogglingly big. Travelling across the vast distances of space is daunting, especially if faster-than-light travel proves impossible. In Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross rejects the luxuries of hyperdrive or warp speed in favour of good, old-fashioned laser-based transmissions of data—and people, who are just another type of data, after all. In such a universe, debt and the tracking of it is of great importance.
Krina Alizond-114 has travelled to the Dojima System to meet up with her sib, Ana. She tries to get to the water world of Shin-Tethys, but her journey is fraught with sidesteps and misadventures. Even when she arrives on Shin-Tethys, tracking down Ana proves more difficult and dangerous than she would like. Krina isn’t a spy or a secret agent; she’s a forensic accountant who delights in unravelling the history of “FTL scams.” But she and Ana have stumbled on something quite naughty, and it seems several parties are after them as a result. What Krina and Ana find could undermine the entire interstellar economy. They could get very, very rich, or they could get very, very dead.
Although nominally set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood inherits the continuity of its setting but, at several centuries’ remove, not so much plot or characters—it’s much more of a standalone book than a sequel. I read Saturn’s Children 5 years ago and remember nothing about it, and that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book at all.
Like many of Stross’ books, Neptune’s Brood features a first-person protagonist who spends a significant amount of time expositioning at the reader. Fans of his Laundry Files series will recognize echoes of Bob’s narration in here, as Krina explains to us the arcane and complicated financial instruments that underpin galactic colonization. Along the way, we’re also treated to some ideas about what the future of “humanity” will be in an era where “Fragile” baseline humans are all but extinct and posthuman “metahumans” are the order of the day. When your soul can be dumped and forked and your bodyplan altered at will, what exactly is your identity anymore?
The idea of lineages (which was explored somewhat in Saturn’s Children, if I recall correctly, but which I don’t remember) is interesting. Instead of sexual reproduction, metahumans in Neptune’s Brood reproduce by forking their personalities, making little alterations here and there, then instantiating them in new bodies. Depending on your lineage, you’re generally expected to work off the debt created by your instantiation—a kind of indentured neoteny. Then you’re free to strike off on your own, as Krina’s lineage mater, Sondra, did so many centuries ago. You can beam yourself to another solar system via the laser beacons that communicate across the vast interstellar gulfs. And then you can wake up in a new body and find a new purpose in life.
As Stross explains how the interstellar economy is built on a Ponzi scheme of expensive colonization journeys, he explains that every colony goes deep into debt upon its founding. It solicits immigrants via its brand new beacon. It’s not quite clear to me how, in a world where personalities seem copyable, why individual people might be valuable resources—surely you can just buy a pirated copy of a group of personalities with the skills your colony needs? Stross dangles tantalizing ideas about how life as a metahuman opens up new possibilities for memory and identity; nevertheless, there are avenues unexplored in this book that leave me with so many questions.
As far as the plot goes, it’s serviceable. Krina is looking for her lost sib, and she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to do so. Along the way, we meet some volatile and interesting characters, and we’re treated to a few different, imaginative types of environments for metahuman life.
My chief problem with Neptune’s Brood is Krina herself. She’s just a very bland protagonist, spending so much time reacting rather than acting. Largely she spends her time in others’ power, and that’s just not as interesting to experience. This is particularly evident towards the end of the book, where she gets kidnapped and then spends a chapter swimming through the depths of Shin-Tethys towards a meeting where all will be explained—no choice in the matter there, really. Even towards the end, where she does have a modicum of say in what happens, her options are so Byzantine to the reader’s understanding that it’s still not much fun.
Stross himself admits in his crib sheet for the novel that the ending is inadequate, and I fully agree. It’s abrupt and underwhelming compared to the rest of the novel. Just as it’s getting “good” in the sense that we know who the enemies actually are and Krina is in a position to begin flexing her agency … we’re done.
You might get the impression from this review that I didn’t like Neptune’s Brood. That’s not entirely accurate. It’s a really thoughtful and interesting space opera, but like a lot of science fiction, ideas at the expense of story usually aren’t enough for me. I enjoyed reading it, but I can’t say I’m excited by it.
I received the first 100 pages of this book as part of the Hugo voters packet, but I only made it to page 46.
Harlan Ellison once used the phrase 'obscurantist drivel.' A bit harsh maybe, but that's the phrase that kept occurring to me as I was reading. I don't mind dense writing and detailed worldbuilding - Dune is one of my all-time favorites, after all - but it seems like Stross is dense just to be dense. Like he thinks his world will seem more rich for being incomprehensible. His writing is far too self aware; reading his books (I previously read The Atrocity Archives and had the same problems) I can hear him thinking 'oh this will be funny,' or 'this makes me sound smart.' It's annoying.
It's also dull. I cared nothing for the characters or the story by page 46. The world was moderately intriguing but mostly just weird. Stross's fancy words fail to transport; I'm left staring at a fat book instead of traveling in space and time.
An extremely intelligent novel and an utterly brilliant read. Stross, for the first time in the history of science-fiction, really thinks about the economics of the interstellar travel and outer system colonization, and builds around it a fun and intelligent story. This is pure science-fiction at its best; with Neptune's Brood, Stross wrote possibly the best book of his incredibly diverse career.
The Big Idea behind Neptune's Brood should immediately grab your interest: in a far, far future in which the android descendants of humanity have colonized the stars but not broken the light-speed barrier, the interstellar equivalent of the Nigerian 419 Scam is still going around.
Add to that: space mermaids, pirate spacebats, and robot assassins, and Neptune's Brood should have been fifteen kinds of awesome.
Alas, Stross, who is a clever, clever guy, drowned a lot of the awesome in monologues about banking, the nature of money, and interstellar finance.
Granted, it was necessary to set up his premise. And the distinction between "slow money" and "fast money" was interesting and high-falutin' sci-fi. (Is there such a sub-genre as Hard SF Economics?)
However, the carefully detailed post-human setting left me more interested in the banking systems than the characters, so when Krina Alizond-114 finally meets her sister, her "mother," and then the Big Reveal about the lost civilization of Atlantis, I was interested in the unlocked puzzle but didn't really care about Krina and her merry band of pirates. (Stross actually manages to insert interstellar slower-than-light pirates into a more or less hard SF story. That gets him a few bonus points.)
Overall, a good read and fine example of intelligent space opera, but I can only give it 3.5 stars — I liked its predecessor, Saturn's Children, more. Neptune's Brood may be smart and well-written enough to deserve its Hugo nomination, but even having read only a few of Stross's books, I have to say this isn't his best.
Abandoning 212 pages in. At first I thought this was so much better than Saturn's Children - fast-paced, interesting story, funny at times, creative setting within the freyaverse, pre-established. I was really into it for 95 pages. Then the author decided to stop writing the story and instead, went on and on about the economic system he'd created. He really wants the reader to understand his concept of Slow Money. I got it. I wanted to move on and tell me more during the story. But he kept stopping and giving mini lectures, and I just couldn't take it anymore.. It does take work to incorporate these details into your novel. Treating them as interludes does not make for an enjoyable reading experience. Unfortunately this repeating tendency masked my enjoyment of space mermaids when that should have been the coolest idea ever (my term.)
I'm hoping Ancillary Justice is better. I may have to call it off with space operas, Hugo nominees and all.
First of, I didn't realize until I had it out of the library that I had, yet again, managed to pick up a series midway through. I'm trying to get better at that - realizing it earlier and going back to read earlier books rather than diving in around the midpoint. However, it looked like this book, while it existed in the same universe as a previous book, happened about 400 years later. I figured that I could probably managed to muddle along.
Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.
In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
This is a rare thing – a financial SF novel. Formally it is the second volume of Freyaverse series, the first being Saturn's Children, but it shares none of the characters of note and happens millennia later. I read is as a part of monthly reading for February 2021 at Hugo & Nebula Awards: Best Novels group. The novel was nominated for Hugo in 2014, lost to Ancillary Justice and came 2nd, even if initially it was 5th (out of 6) nominees. I guess its strong result were largely based on the author’s earlier works, for while I liked it, it hardly a popular book.
The story starts with Krina Alizond, who is one of the spawned clones of her matriarch-mother, a wealthy banker. She is a scholar of the historiography of accountancy and a leading specialist in financial frauds. She is also a metahuman, with ‘natural’ humans, referred as ‘fragiles’ dead millennia ago. Krina is searching for her sister, who went missing in another star system – a water-world of Shin-Tethys.
Unlike the majority of space operas, here there is no faster than light travel. The fastest way to travel is to beam a copy of one self to any destination, where one can be reproduced. However, this is quite expensive, so ships traveling at 1% to 10% of light speed are mostly used. This means that travels for a score of years are commonplace, which doesn’t stop these almost eternal metahumans from wandering around.
The true gem of the novel is a new way to look at finances of any multistellar civilization, where transactions between systems can take decades even at light speed. He suggests a three-tier system of fast money (cash), medium money (analogs to modern day bonds and similar assets) and finally ‘slow money’, a unique form, usually used to invest in creating a new colony, where a payoffs can start centuries or even millennia after the initial investments. Here is a description from the book:
Suppose I wish to hire you—in another star system—to loan me a copy of your soul as indentured labor for a decade or two. Obviously, I must pay in slow money (and pay double, for both copies of you). I send you a signed dollar, one that can be authenticated by a third-party bank as having originated in my own bank. (The authentication step takes place in another star system that I cannot physically control, for it is distant.) Once you receive my coin, you sign it and send a copy of it to the third-party bank for verification. Meanwhile, you upload yourself to my vicinity and again send a copy of the signed coin to the bank. The bank can now countersign the coin—having received two copies of it, you have proven to it that you have traveled from your first location to mine, fulfilling the contract—and sends an activation checksum back to each copy of you, which confirms that each of you are in possession of half a dollar. (Or, by prior arrangement, only one instance of you ends up in possession of the dollar—issuing banks, and only issuing banks, can break coins. As to where the coins come from, that is another question entirely, and I shall discuss it at length later in this report.)
Thus do we pay for interstellar services. It is the ancient dance of the three-phase commit, and it can take many years to complete, for slow money effectively travels at a third of the speed of light. It is cumbersome but very secure. The transactions are tied to the identity of the person or bank that owns the money—you can’t steal slow money without kidnapping or mindrape or fraud. How does the bank know you have traveled? That’s easy to prove; beacon stations watching different stars record the arrival of your signed bitcoins from physically separate star systems. You can’t forge it—not without a starship. You can’t inflate the quantity in circulation—the bitcoin algorithm used to prime issuing banks prevents that. Short of rewriting the laws of mathematics and physics, it’s solid.
This book is much better than the first one, there are scheming religious orders, space pirates working as auditors, adventures in space and under water, frauds and intrigues millennia in making.
This is Stross's Strossiest book since Accelerando. The Big Ideas are still there, but this time instead of Singularitarian enthusiasm and terror, Stross has woven a thriller about the intricacies of interstellar finance. Nominally a sequel to Saturn's Children, it is both much better and stands entirely on its own.
It's the deep future, and humanity is long-dead, replaced by robot with nanotech bodies and very human minds (messing with autonomic nervous systems tends to wind up in bad ways). Krina, our heroine, is an expert in the historiography of accountancy with a sideline in confidence schemes. Chased by a zombie-assassin with her own face, she falls in with morbid human-obsessed cultists, batwinged space pirates, and even stranger situations as she unwinds the greatest financial crime ever committed.
As with a lot of Stross, the world-building starts from a single flash of insight (What if computer science was the same as Cthulhu Mythos sorcery? How would a family that could walk between parallel worlds actually work?), and in this case it's the image of the space pirate as pinstriped merchant-banker. The core of the story builds out from there with relentless logic, along with plenty of those little touches that make the setting feel real. This is a place that works; that people live in.
As a protagonist, Krina is wonkish and competent, and her voice just flows naturally. This book feels comfortable and well crafted in a way that Stross doesn't always achieve. (You can trust Charlie on ideas, but well, his writing schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for sanding rough edges). The only reason I've dinged Neptune's Brood a star is that doesn't end so much as stop in classic Snowcrash fashion. But if you've liked anything else Stross has written, check this one out.
Charles Stross is a genius. In "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood" he has created a universe of everyday surreality populated by metahumans. Who else could possibly dream up a mindbendingly, superfast space opera centred round interstellar banking, bit coinage and accounting? Who else would dream of establishing such a glorious adventure on a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, who else would make a scholar of the historiography of accountancy the heroine of this universe peopled with "robotised" exoskeletons of the Fragile (that's us, ordinary humans, by the way), mermaids and piratical space-bat underwriters? Stross writes so well, with humour mixed in with electrifying pace... Don't forget to breathe in at the end of each chapter! He sprinkles gems along the way: "... please take the glue-gun kit and proceed to Mausoleum Companionway Three...", "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker.", "Death is really no more than the voluntary liquidation of an economy of microscopic free agents, the redemption of the debt of structured life." and my favourite, "The difference between merchant banking and barefaced piracy is slimmer than most people imagine." And now I think about it I was foolish to scoff at that possible career in accountancy and banking....
I had to push through this, which is not usually the way a Stross hits my brain. Still enjoyable. I will file with Stephenson's Baroque Cycle under "fiction with a surprising amount of banking-related content."
Woo, this was a rough one. I admire Charles Stross as a writer in terms of his prose, which is still mostly excellent, and his worldbuilding. You know how some people will say to an author "oh you're so imaginative!" and it always sounds so trite (at least to me, since we all have the potential to be imaginative)? Well, Charles Stross is one of those guys where it would be entirely appropriate. There is a lot of weird stuff going on here, starting with the space-going chapel. The bat insurance underwriters. Oh, and of course, mermaids. Gotta have mermaids.
Unfortunately, other than admiring its craft, I did not really enjoy this book. It was a struggle to read, for several reasons. Let's start out with the fact that it's set in the same universe as, but is not a sequel to, Saturn's Children. It takes place thousands of years later, but does not address the fate of the characters from that book, nor even reference or hat tip a single thing from it. This would be a rather minor annoyance if the novel was a solid tale of its own, but unfortunately...
I had trouble engaging with the plot. It hinges on the economics of a society that spends long periods of time traveling between the stars. Which can be really interesting, as it's a topic not oft addressed in science fiction. I admire Stross for tackling this difficult subject. Unfortunately, the difficulty shows in the book as even he struggles to explain all the economics of "slow money" and accrued societal debt and bonds and oh... I don't know. I think I sort of get it now, but in order to get this far he had to spend a lot of time explaining it. And explaining it again. And again. There are quite a few points where the book pauses to explain some minutia of space economics, and it just grinds the story to a halt. I found it disappointing after being delighted at how well he was able to slip in hard science and historical infodumps into Saturn's Children. The worst part here is that he does actually repeat a lot of infodumps, both of a economical nature but also some character things (Krina repeatedly talks about her birth and upbringing as if she hadn't already explained it before).
I also feel like the plot didn't jell together that well. It feels like he had a lot of neat ideas and concepts that he wanted to work into a novel, but he didn't have a plan about how to tie it all together, making it up as he went along writing the novel. No plot points get dropped, but it feels like they get crammed into roles where they don't entirely fit in an attempt to tie up all loose ends. Except of course, I feel like not everything was tied up. What exactly was Deacon Dennett up to (smuggling?), and how did it tie into what the church was doing at the end (if at all)? And what about Andrea?
And that's probably my biggest issue with the novel, and it's the same problem I had with its predecessor. It just ends, with no proper denouement for the characters, cutting off just as things start to get more interesting or change dramatically. It's the same problem I had with Saturn's Children, and it wouldn't be an issue at all if this book continued the story from that, even in a small way. It doesn't, which means that if there's a third book (and I'm pretty sure there will be, given the developments at the end of this novel), it won't continue this story. Which makes the ending disappointing, but perhaps it's a small relief to know I won't have to read pages and pages about insurance policies and financial fraud again.
Simply, utterly brilliant storytelling and writing from one of the best "hard" sci-fi writers of our day. In the midst of telling a compelling story of the future of humans millenia from now, Stross tackles, invents, whatever, the future of intergalactic monetary systems in a time when bank transfers can take years (standard time) to be completed. Humans are no longer "Fragile" but are bio-nano technological wonders who can have many "iterations," sometimes several at once, if desired. This is a tale of missing money, the greatest Ponzi scheme in the history of the known universe, family betrayals, pirates, forensic and historical accountants, clashes between Royals, and awe inspiring narcissism, all leading to a compelling cat and mouse style denouement which I will leave it to the reader to decide how they like it. I loved it for two reasons: first, this novel could have had many endings and there is no indication as the story unfolds as to how it will end; second, it is a beautiful setup for a series, either with the same characters or stories set in the worlds Stross has created and how the results of the main character/heroine's actions change those worlds. Stross has created many new races in Neptune's Brood, and sequels could deal with interactions between any of them. I confess: I am a fanatic for Stross's work and have not read a book of his that I haven't liked and I've read them all. In this reviewer's opinion, Stross will eventually win a Grand Master award, joining with other "giants" of sci-fi writing. This book comes with my highest recommendation.
Although Neptune's Brood is nominally a sequel to Charles Stross' late-period Heinlein homage Saturn's Children, and the books are set in more-or-less the same universe, there are otherwise few similarities between the two. As if aping its namesake planet, Neptune's Brood is both colder and more remote than its predecessor. This shows up in several ways—physically (Saturn's Children was cozily confined almost entirely to our own Solar System, but its successor is set in multiple star systems, none of them Earth's); temporally (the events of Neptune's Brood occur a few thousand years farther along this universe's timeline); and most of all emotionally.
The plot of Neptune's Brood owes more to the "dismal science" of economics than to the salacious arts of Venus—Krina Alizond-114, its protagonist, is not a sexbot like Saturn's Freya but an historian and accountant, bred for the purpose by her mater Sondra, ruler of the itinerant space environment New California. The novel even opens with a quote from David Graeber's Debt: The First 5 000 Years, and there are numerous places where Stross delves deeply into economic esoterica such as the distinctions among fast money (cash, that is), medium (assets like real estate) and slow money—the long-term debt that drives and supports interstellar colonization.
Stross definitely knows how to start a story on the run and keep it moving thereafter, though. As Neptune's Brood begins, Krina is hastily departing the space station known as Taj Beacon, unaware that she is being pursued by a stalker who looks just like her, but still desperate to find her sibling Ana, who went missing a hundred days or so ago. A dollar or two of slow money can translate into a fortune in fast money, you see... and Krina has half of a secret which could be worth millions of dollars of slow money. Ana holds—or held—the other half.
A helpful travel agent offers to have Krina's legs amputated, since that will make her fare to the next world less expensive. She refuses... but it's already obvious that Krina and the other beings in this society are not, shall we say, baseline humans. They're all robots of a sort, in fact, descended from the ones in Saturn's Children who inherited the Solar System from humanity.
However, some of the more interesting (I thought) elements of that book are missing from this one. Most if not all of the individuals Krina meets are humanoid—in Saturn's Children, much is made of how Freya stands out for retaining her human shape amid the riot of forms the Solar System's robots take. In contrast, it's actually difficult to tell Krina and her fellow beings from merely augmented humans, most of the time, until they refer to "meatsacks" or some such pejorative for Fragile human flesh. Their body images are mostly human, or at least humaniform.
Not that humans themselves loom all that large in this book's society. These Galactic metahumans have moved on, understandably, and rarely give much thought to their progenitors. The absence, receding or suppression of that underlying trauma also contributes to Neptune's Brood's less intimate feel, though.
All this is to say that I didn't like Neptune's Broodquite as much as I liked Saturn's Children... but that's rather like saying I don't like salt-and-vinegar potato chips (crisps to you, Charlie) quite as much as barbecue-flavored ones—they both still taste good to me! There's mystery in Neptune's Brood, intrigue, thrilling action and feats of derring-do. Krina herself is a sympathetic protagonist, if a bit too naive for her own good—we want her to win out in the end. And the overall milieu of Stross' future, dominated by artificial intelligences, always feels well-thought-out and deeply real. I definitely want to see more set in this universe.
This is my last book from 2013... I didn't read quite as many this year as in a couple of previous years, but I'd like to think I bumped up the quality a bit. On to 2014!
This fast-paced story combines the fascinating post-human robo-society of Stross’s earlier “Saturn’s Children” with an intriguing thesis that even over interstellar distances, the Almighty Dollar is the greatest force in nature. I found it hard to decide if this later was a satiric extreme or a natural progression of macroeconomics. Stross argues that human curiosity, cooperative aspirations, and other trite SF notions for the expansion of civilization into the stars are all naively ignoring the truth of how things ultimately get done: by the patient application of market forces to a situation. Here, physical colonization missions are prohibitively expensive, and can only be undertaken with the understanding that the newly established colonies pay off their “foundational debt” with the only currency that can realistically flow between the stars: information. Hilariously, but quite believably, everything in this civilization bends to this notion: space pirates are instead ‘insurance adjusters’, planetary monarchs are ‘bank presidents’, and citizens are born chattel until the day they earn off their own ‘instantiation debt’. Superimposed onto this narrative worldview is the equally exotic outlook of mechanical life. Designed to be more resilient to the hostile environments of the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and with many adopting non-anthropomorphic body plans, they nonetheless inherit quite a bit of human psychology and skeuomorphic behaviors. This keeps the characters relatable while still allowing the narrative enough flexibility to beam their consciousnesses between stars at lightspeed (something prohibited for material objects for most of the story). The plot alternates between between moments of furious action and stretches of historical exposition chronicled by the narrator in a ongoing diary, intended for an audience as unfamiliar to the setting as we. One humorous running gag throughout is the exception-less failure of unmodified humanity (referred to as ‘The Fragile’) to quickly run extinct despite post-human societies’ every attempt to help. The novel’s strongest moments, I think, are when financial concepts are explained to the reader, with a sugar-coating of SF to help it go down agreeably.
I would have enjoyed this book more if I had begun reading at Part II.
Part I: Incoming (1 star, noting that my reason for one star will be someone else's reason for five.)
The imagry was repellant. For the first 100 pages you are immersed in an H.L. Geiger painting (*shivers*). The writing style that said "this book is only for uber-intelligent readers" was at first amusing, playing to the readers pride that they get all the obscure stuff - but after 50 pages I was tired and annoyed, and the story was boring, and the imagry gave me nightmares, so I was done and started skimming to find something worth reading.
Part II: The Abyss (3 stars)
The horrific elements faded to the background, the plot picked up (I still skimmed a lot of banking exposition) so I started reading again. At this point the Space Opera with a mystery begins in earnest and it becomes a relatively entertaining tale. The world building in particular was quite fascinating, with a water-world's nations being defined by pressure scale height rather than geologic forms.
Overall: 1 star (part one) + 3 stars (part two) = averages to two stars for me.
Solid Stross, more reminiscent of Accelerando than his books of the past 5 years or so. Set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but not a sequel... unfortunately.
It may be that one can like Saturn's or Neptune's, but not both: I'll be interested to hear what other Stross fans have to say. Neptune's is clever, tightly plotted, with a much more tidy ending than Stross tends to. My problem was, after the Church-starship arrived at its destination about 80 pp in, I just didn't care anymore.
The plot centers on a McGuffin, a financial instrument of unimanginable value, tied to one of the great mysteries of all time. It should've worked, but for me, it just didn't. The accounting shenanigans were about as interesting as a financial newspaper, and it wasn't redeemed by the techno-social cleverness. I just never felt I had a reason to like or care about either the protagonist or the plot.
It wasn't quite a slog, but it was an act of duty, not fun, to finish this. OTOH, I loved the late-Heninlein pastiche of Saturn's Children, so your mileage definitely may vary.
This is the second thing I have tried reading by Charles Stross. Both this and The Rapture of the Nerds, which Stross co-wrote with Cory Doctorow, were other people's book club picks, and I had similar reactions to both. They were just too weird for me, and I didn't finish either. When you combine the space travel, the metahumans, the elaborate system of currency linked with time, the flying spaceship temple, the pirate insurance agents, etc., it just became too much to wrap my head around. And since I stopped reading at the 25% mark, I didn't even make it to the aquatic planet of the squid people, which I was informed about at my book club meeting. I totally understand why some people would enjoy reading this kind of book, as it wasn't poorly written or lacking for ideas, it was just a few steps beyond me.
http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2292421.html[return][return]It's set in the same universe as Saturn's Children but that really doesn't matter, as it's a very different book - unusually for SF (though much less unusually for Stross) one of the central themes is future economics, specifically the issue of currency and cash flow between worlds which are separated by light years and where information cannot be transferred faster than the speed of light. On top of a decent plot, there is an excellent underwater city, priests, pirates (who may or may not be insurers), and reflections on the complex family dynamics of bespoke clone sisters. I will still rank Ancillary Justice higher, but this gets a good Hugo vote from me.
Uraani kaevandavad kommunistlikud kalmaarid, nahkhiired kes on kindlustusagentidest piraadid, mereneitsiks saamine, et ujuda ookeani põhja, läbi tähtedevahelise ruumi lendav gooti stiilis kabel mida valitseb zombist preestrinna ja kahe tuhande aasta pikkune bitcoini vandenõu - siin raamatus on see kõik olemas. Osad need on sisu osas isegi tätsa olulised.
Tegevus toimub ca 2200 aastat peale Saturnuse lapsi ning kui seal läks lõpus teele esimene tähtedevaheline laev siis nüüdseks on postinimeste poolt asustatud 50 valgusaasta raadiusega sfäär maa ümber. Isegi inimesi (õrnakesi) on vahepealsel ajal juba kaks korda taas ellu äratatud ja on kirik kes üritab erinevaid maailmu nendega taasasustada.
See raamat on tegelikult krüptorahast ja usaldusel põhinevast pangandusest ning selle rakendusest kosmose kolonioseerimisel - peategelane Krina on pangandusajaloo ja just eriti 'valgusest kiirema side' pettuste uurija kes muuhulgas tegeleb vanade, kaotsi läinud või lõpetamata tehingute leidmise ja lahti harutamisega.
Krina on uurimismatkal, peatudes eri tähesüsteemides ja õppides seal kohalike teadlaste juures. Järgmises tähesüsteemis ta peaks kohtuma on õe Anaga aga sinna saabudes selgub, et Ana ei ole üldse tähesüsteemi asteroidivöös vaid on selle asemel läinud hoopis vedelikhiiglasele Shin-Tethys'ele ja lisks muule juba aasta kadunud. Sellest peale ei ole asjad ükski enam nii nagu peaks või paistaks ning 2000 aastat tagasi toimunud suurpettus liigub lahenduse suunas samal ajal kui selle osalised on valmis kõik oma teel hävitama.