336 pp. Ace. $24.95
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
“Of course, space travel isn’t only about being stuffed into a claustrophobia-inducing cell, scared witless, trussed up in a restraint harness, and raped through every orifice for years on end. Because, you know, if that was all there was to it, there’d be a queue outside every travel agent.” Freya Nakamichi-47 "Saturn's Children"
In Charles Stross’s latest novel, “Saturn’s Children”, space travel takes time, often large amounts of it. (Humorously, Stross also writes that space travel is excrement, though in harsher terms. This becomes a running joke throughout the book, not to mention that the book dubs itself a ‘space opera’.) Years can stretch into decades or even centuries if the distance is vast enough. Space vessels store passengers in cramped safety cocoons (and these are the best accommodations), thoroughly isolating their passengers from the outside world. It’s like traveling outside of time, time travel with a long, bland interlude in between. Friends and family age, and possibly die, during the course of the journey. The world changes, sometimes drastically. A person arrives in a different situation than the one they left behind, but are still the same person, and this causes confusion in their self-identity. Are you changed or not? Are you still the same person, although everything and everyone around you has changed, yet you’ve experienced no change?
Freya’s quote about the attractiveness of the “upside” of space travel is followed by her admitting that the “downside” is this sense of personal dislocation. Space travel makes her question who and what she is. This questioning of selfhood and personal identity is a major theme in the book. Freya’s quest for self-understanding in “Saturn’s Children” raises questions about selfhood, love, freedom, and technological exploitation. The twist is: Freya’s a robot. But her struggle is cleverly tied and easily applicable to the human experience. She is a psychological surrogate for the reader, as she pieces together the human experience without ever experiencing a human. She offers the reader the imagined perspective of looking at our experiences from outside of ourselves. While clearly speculative, it’s quite intriguing and well-done.
Within the last couple of centuries, humanity has gone extinct, leaving behind a galactic civilization run by androids. Freya Nakamichi-47 is one of the last remaining sexual courtesans still functioning. Instantiated from her template-matriarch, Rhea, she is programmed to selflessly pleasure humans sexually (and I mean this in the total-loss-of-all-self sense). Since humanity, which Freya refers to as her Dead Love, no longer exists, she’s purposeless. This leads her to question herself and existence: what is she if she cannot fulfill her stated purpose? Is she defined by teleology or by something else? Is she defined by her origins, since her concept of self arose out of a template? What makes her Freya and not Rhea?
Stross is being mischievously clever in creating a character whose self-delineation is confused by their cloned origins as well as their understood, but unachievable, purpose. He further ratchets this confusion up with the introduction of soul chips. Freya, who wears her own soul chip that’s responsible for recording her memories, actions and thoughts, has the ability to access the soul chips of all of her sibs, each one an instantiation of Rhea. By accessing the soul chips of her sibs, she can experience their experiences, and dream their dreams. Of course, the downside is that her sense of self can get even more fragmented (to the point of schizophrenia).
As the novel begins, Freya finds herself in trouble with an aristo she encounters on Venus. Aristos (the rich and powerful members of society) are slave-holders who totally control their arbeiters through implanted slave chips. Running from the aristo’s hired assassins, Freya flees Venus with the help of Ichiban. In order to secure her escape though, she consents to work for Ichiban’s sponsor, the Jeeves Corporation. Freya’s job is to smuggle a mysterious organism from Mercury to Mars, while avoiding the Pink Police. Soon, she discovers that she has become a pawn in a much greater game, a game that could up with her enslaved or killed. With the help of a soul chip from one of her sibs, Freya must uncover the mystery of who she really is.
Stross has imagined an intellectually rich and scientific setting filled with intriguing androids, most which are non-humanoid in design, and populated with some interesting societal insights like the static nature of a slave society. The lack of moral questioning by Freya about some issues like soul chips and their moral implications is intriguing. There is no objection on ethical grounds to tapping into another sib’s memory. Moral issues are abstractions which the androids don’t consider, or are not programmed to consider. It makes morality seem deliciously human. This sharing of personal experiences through soul chips amounts to a group share that makes the delineation of self even more troublesome, and more interesting. (Is self sustainable through shared experiences?) All this adds up to an alienness that is refreshingly original, as well as being an astute social satire.
The underlying story unfolds like a mystery. It’s told to the reader through Freya’s recollection of events. Her tone at times is conversational, charming, confused, or schizophrenic, and is entirely consistent and appropriate for her situation. Stross displays a deft touch in keeping Freya on point, never letting her search for self deviate into abstractions. He successfully raises points without belaboring the issues, all the while keeping the story unfolding smoothly. The smooth pacing makes “Saturn’s Children” ultimately seem more accessible to mainstream readers. While there is a rich scientific environment, it isn’t so overwhelming as to be incomprehensible to those without a doctorate in the sciences.
Charles Stross has created a space opera which unapologetically asks big questions that scream to be pondered. “Saturn’s Children” is a new entry in the long line of science fiction stories that examine the concept of identity and self, and whether technology strips the aspects of self away. Will science in its unraveling of nature take the mystery out of us? It’s a pertinent question that receives a well-balanced, clever and entertaining treatment here.
Final Grade: 84 out of 100