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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="148"]Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross[/caption]

Neptune’s Brood is a 2014 Hugo Award nominated Space Opera by Charles Stross, a full-time science fiction writer living in Edinburgh. It was published by Little, Brown Book Group Limited, 2014; sold under ISBN 0356501000 and 978-0356501000. It is 325 pages long and the unabridged audio book is 35 seconds over twelve hours long. Here is a brief summary of the book.

She was looking for her missing sister, and en route she discovered the nature of the largest fraud ever perpetrated: the Atlantis Carnet. More importantly, she discovered what it means to truly be free. Krina Alizond-114 is a meta-human in a galaxy where the last natural humans went extinct millennia ago. She’s smarter, better adapted to living among the stars, and infinitely more patient than the humans from whom she is patterned. That doesn't mean she has all the time in the universe. Time is running out, and she soon realizes how little she has left, unless she takes previously unthinkable measures – providing she isn’t murdered first.

There are many cleverly orchestrated events that occur in this book, and they always seem to strain the boundaries of credulity but never break them. Fortunately the science in this book is not one of them. In fact, I found this Space Opera’s approach to the science of interstellar travel and colonization to be extremely refreshing. Star Wars is a complete fantasy. This novel sticks to the laws of the universe like they are the glue that binds it together. Which of course they do! :P

Everything that takes place with a spaceship, and in this book that is a lot, happens within the unyielding confines of orbital mechanics. In fact, the journey of Krina in search of her sister takes nearly a year to complete. Accelerations are measures in milli-Gs rather than light years. For those reading this who’ve played Kerbal Space Program, you will be intimately familiar with the problems faced by Krina and her compatriots as they strive to accomplish their goals. Everything is ruled by delta-v. It's awesome.

As for travel among the stars, in Charles Stross’ universe it is done in one of two ways. One can build a giant space ship at planetary GDP breaking cost and spend decades if not centuries getting to another star system, or one can simply transmit themselves to another system at light speed via terawatt laser. The inhabitants of the known galaxy opt for the second method, but more on that in a moment. Faced with tremendous cost of building an interstellar spaceship, new colony foundation is the only reason to ever build an interstellar craft.

But that begs the question of who pays for it. Getting to other star systems at a fraction of the speed of light takes decades at best. Whoever builds the ship incurs tremendous debt to do so, and someone has to pay that dept off. It is in fact the colonists who are charged with making that happen. It is a futuristic version of the indenture system that allowed so many Scotts and Irishmen to come to America in the 17th and 18th centuries. I love it! It's exactly how my paternal 6th Great Grandfather came to North America.

The entire system of planet colonization is based on a credit and debt system that makes the credit default swap derivatives of the 2008 banking collapse look absolutely primitive in comparison. And that’s the entire point. If you are at all inclined to “see” how an entire culture comes to exist using such financial tricks of the trade as it were, you defiantly will want to give this book a read. It makes Bernie Madoff look like a rank amateur. The financial systems of the interstellar society of Neptune’s Brood could very well be a logical extension of the one our current culture operates under. It is an engrossing vision of a debt ruled oligarchy actuated by financial documents carefully constructed and maintained across millennia.

In fact, in order to even exist in this culture one must pay off their creation debt first. Until that debt is paid off, your progenitor can legally abort your existence. That means kill you. Fortunately for this story, Krina Alizond-114, being the 114th fork of her progenitor mother Krina Alizond-1, managed to pay off her creation debt and become an independent member of society. Her specialty, the skill which allowed her to pay off her debt in a handful of decades, is Historical Accounting – the search for long-lost slow-money (the currency of interstellar trade) transactions. This led her logically to the investigation of fraudulent slow-money schemes and thus into a course of study with her sister Ana Graulle-90, an earlier fork on her mother’s lineage who post Krina Alizond-1 had changed their official designation to Graulle. Are you beginning to get the picture of this society? It’s not completely original thinking on Stross’ part, but the financial aspects of it are sheer genius.

At this point you’re probably wondering how all this story can take place if it takes years and decades to travel from place to place. Even the terawatt laser travel I mentioned only goes the speed of light. How's that even possible? It’s possible because these people are meta-humans. Their consciousness, memory and personality are human enough, but their bodies are built from bio-mechanical cells that are much more robust than their fragile human counterparts. This allows meta-humans to endure environmental conditions that would quickly end the life of a normal human. It also allowed them to colonize the stars after fragile humans became extinct. And since their bodies are built, there is no need to take them with you. You simply upload all that is you into a computer and send it down an encoded terawatt laser beam to another star with a receiving station. You can even sell your old body to a recycling business for a little extra cash. Again, not a totally unique vision of the future, but a compelling one nonetheless.

It’s compelling because of how the characters use such an ability during their little adventure. I was both humored and intrigued by the possibilities Stross presented. Of course, that would not have worked had the characters not been so believable in all their various incarnations. That’s the glue that holds the story together. The characters are believable and not stereotypical unless required to be so – and there are instances where that is necessary to the story. In those instances, the characters are treated by Stross with respect and consideration. Just because the character is a stereotype doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. I very much appreciate the author treating them as more than props.

All this said, the book does have some issues. It is my suspicion this manuscript started out as a 500 page novel and was whittled down under pressure. It would have done better with some extra scenes setting the stage for the final confrontation. The antagonist really needed more dimensionality to be a really effective antagonist. Though the plot moves right along at 325 pages, I never worried the protagonist would not prevail. It was not nearly as thrilling as it was thought-provoking, and I’d have liked a little more thrill. And there certainly were more than a couple of tomato surprises that seemed to be just a bit too convenient. Especially toward the end of the story. Still, I only caught one logical inconsistency in the story, so it isn't all bad. ;)

On the standard U.S. scholastic grading scale, I would give this book a 'B-' grade. It is certainly worth reading – in paperback. I don’t think the story justifies the cost of a hard cover. Nor would I pay full price for the audio version. Using a standard monthly credit was just fine. That’s the harsh reality of finances, and because I've listened to Neptune’s Brood, I know Charles Stross understands that financial equation very well. Regardless, I'm now interested in his other book in this universe, Saturn's Children. Also, I would buy a sequel if Charles Stross would continue the story of what happens to all the major characters in Neptune's Brood. There were some ends left loose. I can see some good entertainment in learning that, and I do care to know what happens to the characters he created. In the end, that is what separates a mediocre book from a good one. Any way I look at it, Neptune's Brood is definitely on the best side of that line. :)


  1. This is a kind of sequel of "Saturn's Children". Not really a sequel, since Neptune Brood happens some thousands of years after "Saturns", but it is placed in the same universe.

    Saturn's Children is though a very different history. Just to say, the main character is a female sexbot, designed to bring pleasure to the extict humans, involved in a pan-solar ploy to bring back to existence the humanity... which would be the "owner" of all the cybernetic creatures around. Don't be fooled by the sexbot aspect: the book is very interesting and fun, and it is also quite scientifically accurate. The description of the interplanetary travel is actually awesome (space travel sucks!).

  2. That's what I got from a few other reviews as well. They also said Saturn's Children was better written. YMMV. I certainly plan on giving it a listen. One thing I didn't mention in my review is by the time of Neptune's Brood, humanity had been resurrected four times by the Church of the Fragile. I got a good laugh from that!

  3. I forgot to note in my previous comment that you can get "Accelerando", a collection of Singularity stories (unrelated to the Saturn/Neptune books) for free at:

    The book covers a future history beginning at our current times and ending about one century afterwards. Of course, since a "singularity" happens sometime between both points, the world at the end is very different than our current one.

  4. Have you read the Laundry series Mabrick? They're brilliant.

  5. Not yet but it's on the list. :)

  6. My favorite Stross novels are the Merchant Prince series. It's about a Zelazny type Chronicles of Amber family that can world walk. While the setup is pure fantasy, I'd actually shelve it under Scifi because what it's really about is political and economic development. It's a weird mashup of genres and ideas.

    It does have problems in places, especially in the later books, it's pretty explicit in the fact that it's being written in 2004 by an a british author that's exasperated with American foreign policy in the wake of 911. But it's still a fun an interesting read.


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