Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturn's Children

The latest Locus Awards were announced and this novel by Charles Stross finished fourth for best novel of the year. The reviews of the book had been spectacular since its release, so I had been looking forward to the book, especially since I find myself a fan of pretty much anything Stross writes. I was delighted to find the book dedicated to Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and so expected to find touches of homage to them. And, in fact, the epigraph at the front of the book is a recitation of Asimov's three laws of robotics and the cover, for some reason, just cries out Friday.

And so Saturn's Children goes: Stross has imagined a solar system after the human race has died out, leaving in its place the robots that man had built. Those robots have become their own culture with their own stratification, based on how much autonomy they were given in the tasks their extinct human masters demanded of them. It turns out that building robots with a sense of duty towards humans and there not being any humans to serve leads to what would be considered psychological conditions in the robots.

This is especially true of Freya, the narrator of the story, a pleasure robot that was designed to imprint itself and serve a human master in all ways, including sexually. Since Freya has no human to imprint on, she goes about her "life" performing menial tasks, knowing that she can never fulfill her real purpose. And as a result she grows more and more depressed. The story opens with her contemplating suicide.

You'll notice here that I am ascribing emotions to the robots. Although Stross says that humans and their robot descendants never created an artificial intelligence, it turns out that the robots act as though they have a wide range of emotions, including falling in love. I had a difficult time with this background because the robots themselves, and the culture they have established, seem to be acting under a great deal of free will and with emotion, and I could not rectify this inconsistency. It wasn't much of a problem to ignore the issue because of the narrative style of the story, but when Freya brings up aspects of it in her narration, especially in explaining the different factions she deals with, it became a real obstacle to my enjoyment.

Freya (note the similarity to Friday, again) is saved from her suicide attempt by an upper class robot threatening to kill her for not looking like "decent" robots. And as she escapes, Freya is catapulted into a escapade much like a spy novel, couriering important parcels between the planets and interacting with the many facets of opinion about attempts to use human genetic material to attempt to bring humans back. The similarities with Friday are numerous: a young "woman" discovering the story behind her existence is much larger than she could have imagined and performing covert activities while indecisive about which side of the conflict she truly supports. The novel, then, is the story of her coming of age and finding her place in the world based on her own decisions rather than wherever fate pushes her to. Freya takes more and more control over her "life" as the novel goes on. Along the way she faces danger from hidden adversaries, intent on sabotaging her missions, even if it means killing her.

Stross has written more than one homage to spy novels in the past (notably The Jennifer Morgue and the books that follow), so there is evidence that he is adept at them. But Saturns' Children doesn't work out so well, in part because his earlier "spy novels" only deal with one faction against another and with the sides clearly delimited. This novel has many factions and characters appearing to switch sides regularly. In addition, there are unknown players in the mix, and due to the nature of the portable personalities of the robots, a character that you know to be "safe" suddenly turns out not to be. As a result, the "spy" part of the novel gets twisted so far, it is difficult to follow the meanings behind the actions taken by the characters, further diluting my enjoyment of the novel.

But Stross is also clearly writing an homage to Heinlein with robots, and in this he has more success. While not quite catching the style of Heinlein in his later works, he comes very close, and the pacing and dialogue are very good. There is also the sense of wonder about this solar system inhabited by man's own creation and the sardonic description of how man caused his own downfall. In fact, Freya despairs of the intelligence of man—letting the reader know that man was poorly suited to living on his own planet, let alone trying to colonize others. Not having met men, her narration sometimes includes snips of legends and stories often repeated, and as human readers, while we may laugh at their absurdity, Stross has put enough truth in them to make the serious reader pause and consider the questions those stories raise. And yet, while despairing of man, Freya desperately needs them, as she cannot ever be complete without a human to imprint upon. This is not to say that Freya doesn't have sex—and she does, a lot—but she needs to be needed, or at least feels she is. And regarding the sex…no, I don't really get it either. Why would robots have sex…to "feel good"? Such a path of reasoning leads me back to the quandary I mentioned before, just how sentient are these robots?

Also underlying the story telling is a fascinating philosophical question about Asimov's laws and how the robots who are designed to fulfill them would be forced to live without humans to apply them to. In some cases, the robots strive to bring man back, and in others, they just ignore the first law since it can no longer be applicable. Stross rarely has Freya explicitly discuss this question, but it does inform the movements of all the characters and most of the plot.

As a result, I'm left with a really mixed bag. I wanted to like the novel for a number of reasons, but when I finished it, I felt unfulfilled in just about every way I can imagine. All of the things that the novel could have accomplished feel unfinished, though the plot reaches a suitable stopping point. I'd really like Stross to do more work in this setting to begin to fill out these empty spaces, but if you are new to Stross, there are, I think, much better and satisfying books to start with.

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