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.