Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross

If you’re inclined to despair at the number of YA nominees for best novel in this year’s Hugos, look no further than the annual entry by Charles Stross, which channels the sex and politics of Heinlein with the technology of Asimov into a somewhat entertaining mishmash that is Saturn’s Children. In the future, robots have done such a good job of taking over all the tasks that humans would rather not do that humanity itself has died out, leaving the robots to make their own destiny. This poses particular problems for certain kinds of robots, starting with the protagonist, Freya, who comes from a line of, well, basically sexbots. She herself was not created until years after humanity’s passing, there’s still plenty of sex to be had with other robots (and not even just the humanoid variety), but it’s just not the same thing. For dubious reasons she goes from a vague previous existence on an outpost of Venus to gradually becoming an interplanetary secret agent, giving the reader the grand tour of several planets within the solar system and without. One advantage, if you can call it that, of being a robot is that the lengthy travel times between worlds don’t mean much to your overall lifespan, although they’re still boring, and pesky problems like radiation are not particularly dangerous either.

Although Stross starts his story at the beginning, he does drop you into a future backstory that takes a while to be revealed. There’s something of a method to his madness, since all this intrigue revolves seemingly around a plot to resuscitate humanity, which may have been humanity’s plan all along. Freya herself isn’t always privy to what’s going on until well after it’s already happened, such that some of the revelations late in the book don’t pay off as satisfyingly as they could have. All the robot sex serves to make the story less grim and clanky than other Stross efforts, but it still seems a little silly, Heinlein at least seemed genuinely invested in the future of sex, but I’ve never gotten the impression that this is one of Stross’s areas of interest. But he does do a good job of extrapolating a robot-centric Asimovian future realistically, to the point that much of the time the various characters don’t even really need to be robots, but Stross still keeps their mechanoid origins and idiosyncracies front and center, less this devolve into just another future spy novel. At the end, things get kind of rushed and the main story sort of fizzles out, but for me it was okay as I was ready to move on by that point anyway.

You can’t under-appreciate the magnitude of what Stross has done here, keeping the information density fairly high but still comprehensible, there are few throwaway techno-references, the backdrop is wide-ranging but still focuses on a few core characters, it’s still at heart a personal story told against a much greater canvas that all seems to fit together very well. After it’s over, maybe a little more canvas spread out over a few more pages would have given the story more heft, but the novel’s forebears could achieve much with much less. The modern sf novel can’t get away with the economy of means that Asimov or earlier Heinlein could, such that by today’s standards this book comes across as a little too abrupt, and the perfunctory ending doesn’t help mitigate that impression. Not as satisfying as Glasshouse, perhaps, but still worthwhile and completely different yet again from his prevous books, which should count for a lot.

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