Fiction Reviews

Neptune's Brood

(2013) Charles Stross, Orbit, £16.99, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50099-7


Krina Alizond has just arrived at a star system: the Dojima System. She is a post-human, well actually more an organic 'robot' as we (the now extinct for the umpteenth time) human 'fragiles' would have called them, but now they are species in their own right. Krina arrived in the Dojima System at a beacon as a digitised signal and downloaded into a form created from part of that signal. She is a spin-off, a kind of clone, from her mater who is a very wealthy owner of a giant colony ship light years away. What Krina needs to do next is to somehow move in-system to find her sib Ana who has gone missing. What Krina does not know is that an assassin looking like her also arrived at the beacon. Meanwhile she has been able to secure a working passage on a Church ship…

We soon learn that Krina is a kind of super accountant, which is a highly skilled and valued profession in a far future where tremendous economic resources need to be marshalled for interstellar colony foundation and investors paid back many decades and centuries later. With everything limited by the speed-of-light but – with independent star-system third-party verification required – actually a third of the speed of light, economic systems need to be robust to endure the ravages of time. Could it be that missing Ana has uncovered some criminal activity? If so the consequences could be considerable.

Stross gives good SF and is very entertaining with things like his parallel world 'Trader' sequence or his 'Laundry' series. But where he really sizzles is with wide-screen, hard SF such as Accelerando or his debut Singularity Sky. Neptune's Brood is no exception; it is a breath-taking vision. We soon learn that the novel's perspective is economic and Charles Stross has a fascinating take on financial systems to make his future, interstellar society work. Neptune's Brood is a very inventive piece of work and has indeed been nominated this year (2014) for a Hugo: we would have reviewed it earlier (as we love hard SF) but had not previously been favoured with a review copy (we are a time-limited volunteer site and so very much give priority to reviewing books we have been sent and not our own personal reading). Suffice to say that it is very worthy of Hugo consideration as a work of SF 'achievement'.

Because the plot is firmly centred on Stross' universe's economic system we need to be told how it works and why aspects are plot relevant. This in turn necessitates being given much information: arguably too much to be imparted as a matter of course as the plot unfolds. So almost inevitably, what we end up with are numerous info-dumps: the book is littered with them. Now, this could so easily have got in the way but actually these were short and to-the point as well as fascinating in their own right. Their presence was facilitated as if the protagonist – Krina Alizond – was laying down the record of events for us. Indeed, as the story progresses, we realise that as her life is threatened she does need to have an insurance policy and so, if you like, Neptune's Brood is that record, written to be released if ever she went missing or was found dead.

What I did find a little irritating – I found this so in several places – was what I consider to be Stross' over-reliance on the colon. Furthermore he does capitalise the first letter after their use; a grammatical sin in the Oxford Guide to Plain English, but I see from the New Oxford Style Manual that this is a North American affectation. This is not excusable as Orbit is an English imprint and Stross a British writer. Now, people in glasshouses should not throw stones, and I am acutely aware that SF2 Concatenation badly needs a copy edit, but then amateur fanzines are not professionally published books who employ a professional copy editor and (often separately) a proof reader. And so this is something that in future Stross and/or Orbit might want to watch.

Finally, where does Neptune's Brood sit within present-day (2014) SF? As said, this is hard SF, wide-screen space opera. It is hugely inventive and has a solid plot that simply bowls along. It is very easy to understand why it was nominated for a Hugo. All this is well and good, but we must remember that genre evolution is in a very real sense a conversation; one conducted primarily between writers but also critics, book reviewers as well as readers (such as at conventions and more recently reader and genre blogs). In the past I have noted that one theme of Stross' novel Glasshouse (2006) related to Joe Haldeman's Old Twentieth (2005) and Alistair Reynolds' Century Rain (2004). Here, with Neptune's Brood, I see a trope similarity with Reynolds' House of Suns (2008) with the notion of a person cloning themselves and sending their 'offspring' out into the Galaxy. Is Stross a Reynolds reader and picking up on some of his notions but running with them a different way? I don't know, but if it is it is no bad thing, and neither does it undermine Neptune's Brood's primary dimension of interstellar economics in an Einstein-limited universe which is all of Stross' own invention.

In short, Neptune's Brood's is a remarkable, imaginative and an engaging work. Do seek it out. Solid stuff.

Jonathan Cowie

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