Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

<em class="BookTitle">Neptune’s Brood</em>, Charles Stross

Ace, 2013, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-425-25677-0

I grinned when I heard that Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood earned itself a Hugo nomination: Stross’s brand of densely-packed imaginative Science Fiction may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s certainly a favorite flavor of mine. Stross is able to meld SF’s traditional core strengths with contemporary social sensibilities to produce SF that’s both recognizably in-genre, while reaching out to integrate new ideas and social inclusiveness. I welcome any excuse to read his books, especially when they take the form of a Hugo nomination.

Loosely set thousands of years after the events of Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood features a vast post-human diaspora settled on multiple worlds. Despite the lack of faster-than-light travel, technology has progressed sufficiently that people can be beamed from star to star… as long as the required infrastructure is in place. But even without the troublesome aspects of sending meat-flesh across interstellar distances, space colonization is hard. As Stross explains in an enjoyable series of explanatory passages, building a colony from scratch requires a ruinously expensive starship, dozens/hundreds of years of hard work in building laser transmission and reception infrastructure, and thousands of very specialized people working together. There’s no way to do that without incurring astonishing amounts of debt, and how do you do that across interstellar distances and years of separation?

The solution, ingeniously posits Stross, is to develop “slow” money, algorithmically created in much the same way emerging digital currencies currently are, that are not subject to the same kind of fluctuations as “fast” money used in day-to-day transaction. Slow money, of course, is different from fast money: a single slow dollar converted to fast money is enough to make an individual rich for years.

Having built a space opera on a physically-accurate economic framework, Stross then proceeds to deliver on of his usual thriller yarns, featuring an endearing heroine specializing in the history of frauds and on the trail of a massive financial con. Despite the heavy economic content, Neptune’s Brood is heavy on thriller plot mechanics, traditional SF devices and amusing set-pieces: By mid-book, we’ve been hanging with skeletal bots, zombie queens, space pirates and genetically-modified mermaids. Stross is clearly having fun, and it’s this blend of economic/futuristic speculation and out-and-out comic thriller sensibilities that make Neptune’s Brood so enjoyable.

Seasoned SF readers will, as usual, find much to like here. Stross understands genre SF completely and fluently plays with typical concepts, subverting a few of them and faithfully upholding others. The way Stross manages to present a vivid interstellar civilization despite the limitations of STL is intriguing (even though he still had to get rid of unmodified humans to do so), and the conceptual economic model her proposes is the kind of work other authors will, or should, adopt as part of their far-future toolbox. Anyone looking for SF speculation probably won’t find any better book this year.

As a long-time Stross reader who often peers over the author’s keyboard as he reveals aborted projects and odd sources of inspiration, it’s good to see his “Space Pirates of KPMG” pitch resurface after being deep-sixed as a sequel to Iron Sunrise. Neptune’s Brood will feel very comfortable to anyone who loves Stross’ far-future speculations (the indebtness to Saturn’s Children and the Eschaton series is obvious, but there’s shadows of Accelerando and Glasshouse in here too, and the criminal/financial theme finds resonance with the Halting State / Rule 34 universe as well.)

I’m not completely blind to the novel’s faults. It’s part of the point of Neptune’s Brood that travel between systems is slow and expensive, but that limits the amount of space-opera scenery we get to see during the trip. There’s also a certain familiarity to the caper-and-thriller plotting that undercuts the originality of the premise; I recall having some of the same reactions upon Saturn Children‘s release. Finally, perhaps more importantly, the narrative ends more abruptly than expected, with nary a denouement to release readers after the climactic so-there.

But those are relatively small quibbles in a strong SF novel in the classical mold, with enough speculation to keep core-SF readers happy, and enough thrilling action to satisfy adventure-minded readers. Stross remains at the top of the SF game and my reaction to Neptune’s Brood reaffirms why I should always make time on my schedule for his novels even as my leisure time has shrunk.

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