Sunday, November 12, 2023

Neptune's Brood

Neptune's Brood
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 14+

Try, just try, to imagine an immensely distant future when the human race as we know it has gone extinct, not once but three times. Evidently, the "fragiles" (as our android successors call us) aren't built to thrive in an interstellar environment, or to live long after colonizing alien worlds, etc. It's hard enough on humanity as they know it; and they have backups, and the ability to replace or reshape their bodies to suit any number of environments. The people in this book, for example, seem capable of surviving more than a few moments in the vacuum of outer space; they can adapt to all kinds of environments, from high radiation to the depths of the sea. They're not indestructible, though. So when Krina Alizond-114 – an expert on the history of bank fraud – finds herself pursued by a killer doppelganger, it's serious.

The reason there's a price on Krina's head has a lot to do with the economics of colonizing space on a galactic scale. Everything in Krina's era revolves around a form of capitalism in which "children" spawned by a metahuman parent have to work out the debt of their instantiation before they can become free citizens; in which your soul can be saved to a chip inserted at the back of your neck, transmitted across interstellar distances and re-instantiated in a new body; and in which entire worlds leverage the debt for their colonization using an incredibly secure financial instrument known as Slow Money. And now, it seems, Krina and a couple of her "sibs" have discovered the facts about a colony, interestingly known as Atlantis, that disappeared a couple thousand years ago – facts that implicate their mother, one of the most powerful bankers in the galaxy – along with an unimaginable fortune that has lain hidden for millennia, bought with lots and lots of blood.

Everybody wants to get their hands on it: dear old mom. The mermaid queen of an ocean planet. The priestess of a church that is trying to re-seed the galaxy with "fragiles." A band of anthropomorphic bats who are either pirates or insurance agents, depending on how the mood takes them. Everybody, it seems, except the squid people who live at the bottom of the sea, but let's not talk about them. Let's talk about the breathtaking scale of this novel's inventiveness, carving a whole reality out of a super remote possible future and hitting every shade and tint on the full spectrum of horror. Yes, it does paint a not-too-pretty portrait of the direction capitalism could take civilization, given a few hundred thousand years to continue as it has begun. And yes, it does present a vision of deep-space travel and planetary colonization that bleeds the "space opera" romance right out of it. I mean, when you think about it the way Stross prompts you to think about it, traveling by colony-sized starship is stupidly expensive, dangerous and time-consuming, and space battles are boring spectacles whose outcome is rather like betting on the roll of dice, if your dice happen to require months or years of acceleration and deceleration. Packed with weird images, cultural strangeness, collisions of vast political and economic forces and alien things that on a certain level are also human beings, it's a book that'll tie knots in your brain and leave them there.

This review is based on a 10-CD, 12-hour audiobook narrated by Emily Gray, which occupied nearly the whole of a car trip a week ago from the wilds of north-central Minnesota to Fort Wayne, Indiana. If I had started listening to it at my house (instead of at my parents', an hour south), or perhaps if I had felt competent to change CDs in the midst of Chicago traffic, it probably would have measured the distance just about exactly. Up to now, I have known Charles Stross mainly as the author of the James Bond-does-Lovecraft "Laundry Files" series, which has grown to 12 novels now besides a few novellas. I also read (via audiobook) his far-future, mind-blowing novel Glasshouse, and I was ready to say something about this book being in that register until I saw on Fantastic Fiction that this novel is actually the second book in the "Freyaverse" series, following up on Saturn's Children. His world-building sci-fi achievements also include the "Singularity Sky" trilogy, six "Merchant Princes" novels, Halting State and its sequel Rule 34, the "Empire Games" trilogy, Missile Gap, Scratch Monkey, two short story collections and a collaboration with Cory Doctorow called The Rapture of the Nerds.

No comments: