Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

Ace, 2008, 323 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01594-8

One of the most vexing issues to face genre SF these days is the necessity to put away outdated futures. Seminal writers in the fifties may have have imagined glorious visions of housewives in space, but we know a bit better: We know that housewives will be rare in the future, and we suspect that space travel is likely to remain impractical for humans. Any modern SF writer worth his books’ cover price has to stop and consider whether the ideas hardwired in the collective DNA of the genre are still possibilities knowing what we know now.

Charles Stross is one of the smartest genre SF writers on the market today, so it’s a delight to see him come up with a novel that squarely confronts those issues in Saturn’s Children. It’s an updated homage to Heinlein and Asimov that seeks to tie classic extrapolations to a future we can still imagine from today. It’s a romp, it’s typical Stross (perhaps too-typical Stross) and it’s a terrific read for those weaned on classical SF.

While perfectly readable on its own, Saturn’s Children is best appreciated with a curriculum of previous reading experiences. Since it’s an explicit homage to Heinlein and Asimov, it’s best appreciated with some knowledge of those authors. In particular, it features a heroine, Freya, with strong similarities to the titular heroin of Heinlein’s Friday (the cheesecake cover of the American edition of the book may be too outrageous for some, but it is a blatant reference to Michael Whelan’s infamous Friday cover), tours the solar system much like in Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (along with descendants like John Varley’s The Golden Globe) and freely quotes attitudes from much of Heinlein’s middle-to-late period. Since Saturn’s Children also riffs on the power chords of the Three Laws of Robotics, familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is suggested.

It begins as narrator Freya contemplates suicide. You would too if you were in her situation, a female sexbot created to serve the needs of a human race that has since disappeared, now stuck above Venus with little means to her credit. Fortunately, Freya is one of many fembots cast from the same model, and they try to help each other when they can. Shortly after being summoned by one of her sisters, Freya is stuffed in a ship and sent off to Mercury, where her Grand Tour of a post-human Solar System only begins. Fans of Stross’ work won’t be surprised to learn that espionage, thrills, secret identities, romance and high-tech jargon are all included in the tour. The prize is a dazzling recasting of Heinleinian and Asimovian themes in something that feels convincingly modern, up to an including a neat extrapolation of the social vulnerabilities of Asimovian-wired robots left without human masters.

Saturn’s Children is most distinctive when it points and smirks endearingly at the trail left by Heinlein, Asimov and other well-respected SF legends. Heinlein’s well-known quote about the need for humans to be generalists is upended with a rude reference to trading other people’s skills for sexual acts. Other specialized jokes abound: A crucial poultry-shaped MacGuffin is referred to as a “Plot Capon” while the threat of humans being genetically re-created becomes “pink goo”. And so on; even if this a standalone book, the more you remember about SF, the more jokes you’ll get.

As a Stross book, it’s largely what fans have learned to expect from the author: it hits the usual techno-jargon, humor, romance, thrills and hints of horror that figure so often in his work. Readers who loved his previous books will completely satisfied by this one. (Conversely, those who still don’t get what Stross is trying to do won’t be any closer to an answer with this one.) Stross has attained the status of a reliable author a while ago, but at the price of delivering excellent novels that are perhaps a bit too similar. From an uninformed perspective, Stross writes very quickly: due to a number of factors, his fans have enjoyed twelve novels in six years, an insane pace that doesn’t allow any margin for error. As a result, Saturn’s Children may be superbly entertaining, but also feel just a bit too familiar to be truly impressive. (On-line chatter suggests that he’s aware of the issue and is about to slacken the pace a bit, which should be for the best.)

Small quibbles about Stross’ prodigious writing output aside, Saturn’s Children is another solid hit for him, and a superb example of genre Science Fiction at this moment in time. It makes interesting use of familiar tropes with contemporary thinking, and it’s a wonderful read from beginning to end. Stross has been accumulating fans ever since coming to prominence with his first novel, and this merely keeps up his winning streak.

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