By Charles Stross
First Published: 2008
US Jacket Illustration by Joe Williamsen
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Thriller, Spy Novel
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross has a cheesy subtitle and a cheesy US cover illustration but it's not a cheesy science fiction novel. Despite all indications from the cover, this is a highly innovative and engaging novel with a great combination of exciting action, fun humor, and extrapolated hard science.
Saturn’s Children begins in the far future, approximately 200 years after humans have become extinct. However, humans have left the solar system in the hands of their plentiful offspring, intelligent robots. The robots have greatly extended the exploration and colonization of the solar system begun by humans. Colonization has spread from Mercury to Pluto and has been greatly assisted by the robots’ better suitability for survival in harsh environments. The diversity of robots is incredible as they come in all shapes and sizes ranging from simple single task robots to incredibly advanced androids modeled to copy almost every detail of their creators. In addition, the development of artificial intelligence was accomplished by copying the structure and processes of the human brain which has given rise to the side effects of robots gaining very human-like emotions, motivations, politics, and intrigues. On top of all this baggage, the intelligent robots and androids were designed with some extra safety precautions to make sure they would never revolt against their masters. With the extinction of humans, these extra “features” are being exploited by the most ambitious “aristo” androids to enslave their kin.
Saturn’s Children is narrated in first person present tense by Freya, a humanoid female robot who was “born” after the extinction of humanity. Freya is a model of android that was designed as the embodiment of an ideal woman to serve as escorts or concubines. Now that humans have disappeared, her unique skill set is mostly useless which is why she is down on her luck and short of money. Her original design purpose explains the sexy mannequin cover illustration for this novel. In addition, Stross doesn’t use the cover as a tease only. Freya does indeed have advanced sexual capabilities and she is not averse to using them. Who knew that sex between robots could be erotic?
The novel opens with Freya getting into a scuffle with an “aristo” on Venus leading to a need for Freya to make herself scarce from Venus quickly. Freya’s desperation to escape leads to her becoming a space courier and she soon finds herself becoming a high stakes secret agent in a contest between the largest powers in the solar system with the stakes being the freedom or enslavement of most, if not all, robot kind.
What is perhaps most surprising about this novel is that the robots are portrayed with surprising emotional depth. It’s a bit ironic that a space opera populated solely with robot characters has better character development than many traditional space operas containing human characters where the stories are often completely plot driven and character development is only an afterthought. Using androids instead of humans also has the added advantage of giving the main characters some superhuman capabilities than make for thrilling action scenes.
It’s obvious that Charles Stross had a great time creating this novel. With a civilization of androids that have superhuman abilities but are afflicted with human type emotions, he has the opportunity to satirize just about all aspects of modern humanity. A great example is the debate among androids between the evolution zealots and the creationist realists where the debate is strongly colored by the proven fact that the robot civilization was created, not evolved.
With an action packed secret agent plot, an engaging and plucky heroine, a bit of kinky robot sex, and a generous amount of intelligent humor, you can’t go wrong with this novel. My only criticism is that the secret agent plot verges on being too complicated but if you don’t worry about overanalyzing everything this novel is satisfying on many levels. If you’re looking for a really fun science fiction read that will also make you think, you can’t do much better than Saturn’s Children. Pick it up at your first opportunity.