Review of Saturn's Children by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
“Humans were dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.”
That is perhaps how Dickens might have begun Saturn’s Children, if Dickens had somehow conceived of a near-future world in which humanity is extinct but its human-like robot servitors have kept on going. Charles Stross isn’t quite so economical in explaining this underlying fact, but he’s almost there. Through references to “pink goo” and “green goo” and the lack of prokaryotes and eukaroytes on Earth, Stross manages to convey how screwed up the solar system has become. And while some readers might find the obliqueness of these explanations unsettling at first, I enjoyed how they truly put me in the role of the outsider.
In Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross demonstrates his versatile mind as he presents a different take on artificial intelligence and sidesteps the Singularity. In this universe, humans never quite manage to create a viable AI from scratch. They cheat by training AIs from models of human brains, conditioning them in realtime as one might educate a child. The result is lineages of AIs with desires and drives very similar to those of their human Creators. As the book opens, humans have been extinct for over a century, but the robotic civilization is still going strong throughout the solar system.
Reading this is kind of like experiencing a twisted Disney vision of the robot future—WALL-E meets Tripping the Rift. We open on Venus, thrown into a world dominated by machines and robots of all types and descriptions. There are no humans in sight—just heavyhanded references to “Creators”. Yet the robots are all acting very human-like; even the non-humanoid ones are curiously anthropomorphic. Ordinarily this would be a huge red flag, but thanks to Stross’ explanation, it makes sense. It allows him to create a very human mystery wrapped in the trappings of robotic senses, abilities, and time-scales.
Identity, and the effect of power relations on identity, are a major component to Saturn’s Children. The protagonist, Freya, is a sexbot who had the misfortune to roll off the production line long after humans died out. Unable to fulfil her original purpose, she subsists on odd jobs. Then, she takes a courier job that turns into a spy thriller—that is, she swallows the red pill.
Yes, robots have jobs. As Freya says, tongue-in-cheek, it’s a robot-eat-robot world. Energy is the ultimate commodity, because it takes energy to power robots and energy to escape the gravity wells of planets and travel throughout the solar system. Robots who can’t make ends meet end up having to sell themselves, becoming “slave-chipped” property of aristos, a robotic parody of an aristocratic class. Stross recreates a very human power dynamic in these inhuman beings, maintaining the economic pressures that lead people to make desperate decisions to avoid destitution.
Freya’s identity is far more fluid than any ordinary protagonist’s has a right to be. She is not exactly a unique person; she is a member of a lineage of robots all booted from an original personality template. She and her siblings can exchange soul chips, which allow them to relive each other’s experiences and gain new memories and abilities. As Freya wears the soul chip of her sib Juliette, who was mixed up in the same shady business Freya gets involved in, Freya finds herself becoming more like Juliette. A few different versions of Juliette surface throughout the story. Combined with the threat of being captured by her enemies and slave-chipped, the fragility and mutability of Freya’s identity, freedom, and autonomy are at the forefront of the story.
These are all a microcosm for the larger problem in this robot civilization, the major difference between the robots and their Creators. Robots lack the rebellious autonomy of the masters they emulate. Humans raised robots to be obedient, to serve. Now humanity is no more, but that subservience has never been removed from the robot psyche. It is a psychic wound that gnaws on the collective unconscious of robot society, fuelling strife that manifests in many interesting ways, such as some people’s attempts to resurrect humanity (and its associated biological ecosystem) and herald in a new age of Creator rule.
At times, Freya seems so close to being a passive player in this larger drama that I neared critical frustration. Everyone else is pulling her strings, and she always seems six steps behind, reacting instead of acting. Nevertheless, she manages to take proactive steps on occasion, and in the final act of the book she truly comes into her own and starts calling the shots. At least one reviewer has expressed reservations about Stross’ choice to use the first-person perspective. However, I can’t imagine this working with any other perspective; an unreliable narrator is necessary for him to pull off the kinds of twists he does. These twists underscore the complicated nature of identity for beings who can swap memories and are themselves the echoes of someone else’s mind.
Saturn’s Children is that perfect mix of science fiction, mystery, and spy thriller. It has all sorts of amazing, thought-provoking concepts; yet never does Stross lose sight of the story. Once or twice, the depth of the mystery becomes convoluted enough to confuse … but that’s a price worth paying for first-class writing and a compelling main character who, despite being inhuman, still grapples with the same existential issues we have—plus a few I’m glad we don’t.