A little has been made in economic circles of how Charles Stross portrays interstellar finance in his new book, Neptune’s Brood. In the first of the series, Saturn’s Children, Stross established the physical mutability and psychological constraints of Freya, a transhuman sex-bot. In that story Stross took on more than just sex after it’s become obsolete. Stross took on slavery, inherited class and feudal control, and he illustrated how we are all at the mercy of our rulers’ damaged obsessions.
In this sequel Stross has a new protagonist, the banker Krina. With her Stross pivots away from the robot apocalypse of the near future. He skips forward thousands of years and brings the story back to the economic headlines of our world today. Krina’s story spans currency areas, economic expansion, economic depression, wage slavery, sovereign debt, banking regulation, and takes the story to the poor schlubs who audit the books after everything has gone wrong.
This story too often dominates our own news and Stross explores the world of finance with some subtlety. Stross also touched on these issues in Rule 34 but in this new novel he delves more deeply into the mechanisms and blends them into the sauce of space opera. The chief example of blending is the way Stross resolves transactions where a transaction must wait years for interstellar laser communications to transmit digital signatures. It’s fiddly science fiction at times but it’s grounded in real situations. Understanding it is worth the effort.
The book’s appeal is heightened by the constant peril faced by the protagonist, Krina. Compared to humans, Stross’s transhuman Krina is a cyber-superhero. Like the other transhumans of her universe, she is physically strong and able to shrug off the fatal effects of vacuum, radiation, and toxic atmospheres. Krina can back up her consciousness and transmit herself across the stars into new bodies. She can regrow practically any damage to her body by consuming partially-processed raw materials—or in extremis, another person (see Stross’s short story Bit Rot, the only plausible medical premise for zombies I’ve seen). Over time and with help Stross’s characters can be re-engineered into any imaginable form and can live essentially forever.
But Stross’s characters face a well-modeled web of new tensions. The protagonists of both books address the possibility of mind control, mind wiping, doppelgangers and compelled interrogation, but in Neptune’s Brood there’s less sado-masochistic sex slavery and even less discussion of the long-ago lost world of “meatsack” humans. Instead Stross falls back on how survival works in any world. His characters have to eat. They have to make a living. His protagonists have adventures, yes, but they are adventures that are mediated through their work. Their actions are often dictated by their bosses and institutions. When Freya and Krina express their own agency, their professional and economic survival are in the foreground. Stross has his finger on the thready pulse of our own times.
The cover of Neptune’s Brood is a change. The covers of some of Stross’s novels have been afflictions,
Saturn’s Children Space Cleavage, for one, The Apocalypse Codex This Guy Looks Like a Jerk for another. But there’s hope: the new UK covers for the Laundry Files are an improvement; they err on the side of abstraction. The cover for Rule 34 was very cyberpunk-y and did justice to the character without exploitation. The cover for Neptune’s Brood continues the trend away from the cheap art that depicts latex or a chain-mail-bikini. The mermaid of the cover of Neptune’s Brood is naked, yes, but is fig-leafed by its frame, rendered well, and has a posture and expression of purpose.
I know the backlash against bad sci-fi/fantasy covers may seem prudish, but giggle-inducing crappy covers don’t allow for content that is well done and thought-provoking. The West is a couple decades past the point where we needed to Stick It To The Man by putting silly soft-core pornography on the cover of a book. The Man stuck back by giving up on prudery, then dumped books from the checkout aisle. So it’s a good thing that Neptune’s Brood can be put out where people can see it. Checkout customers have economic ideas that need updating.