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The year is AD 7000. The human species is nearly extinct—for the fourth time—due to its fragile nature.
Krina Alizond-114 is metahuman, descended from the robots that once served humanity. She’s on a journey to the water world of Shin-Tethys to find her sister Ana. But her trip is interrupted when pirates capture her ship. Their leader, the enigmatic Count Rudi, ...
The year is AD 7000. The human species is nearly extinct—for the fourth time—due to its fragile nature.
Krina Alizond-114 is metahuman, descended from the robots that once served humanity. She’s on a journey to the water world of Shin-Tethys to find her sister Ana. But her trip is interrupted when pirates capture her ship. Their leader, the enigmatic Count Rudi, believes that there’s more to Krina’s search than meets the eye.
He’s correct: Krina and Ana each possess half of the fabled Atlantis Carnet, a lost financial instrument of unbelievable value—capable of bringing down entire civilizations. Krina doesn’t know that Count Rudi suspects her motives, so she accepts his offer to get her to Shin-Tethys in exchange for an introduction to Ana.
And what neither of them suspects is that a ruthless body-double assassin has stalked Krina across the galaxy, ready to take the carnet once it is whole—and leave no witnesses alive to tell the tale
Recently I had an exciting dream. I was attending a mass rally in a huge public plaza that was filled with approximately 100,000 people who had all come to hear Charles Stross speak. Luckily for us, Stross refrained from ordering his minions to perform any mindlessly worshipful or unrighteous acts but instead lectured the crowd of happy fans on science fiction, technology, and the world at large — pretty much just as he does on a regular basis at his fascinating blog, Charlie's Diary.
This pleasant oneiric fantasy will probably never come true. Stross does not draw Neil Gaiman–magnitude legions to his work or to his convention appearances. His brand of SF is too information-rich, too challenging. It provides intense pleasures at a measurable cost: substantial readerly attention must be paid to parsing the unique language of SF and to Stross's elaborate ideational architecture.
There's no hand-holding in a Stross book; he's not a beach read. He is and will remain an elite flavor, the epitome of that special skill set and esoteric mode of thought and narrative that is postmodern SF. But those who love his work just can't get enough. And luckily for us, Stross exhibits a dedication to his craft that produces books at a steady clip. He keeps several series going simultaneously, in fact, and now brings us installment number two in the Saturn's Children saga, named after the book that launched the series.
That novel is a perfect example of Stross's chosen steep angle of attack and density of conceptualizing and presentation. The novel's protagonist, who narrates in the first person, is Freya Nakamichi-47, a completely self-willed and sentient android living some centuries after the demise of the entire human race, at a time when her immensely variegated artificial kind have populated the solar system as our inheritors. (Nod to Clifford Simak and his City here.) We first find her, without any prelude, sitting outside on the balcony of a giant dirigible in the atmosphere of Venus, contemplating suicide. If that's not enough cognitive estrangement for you, I don't know where else to send you, except perhaps to someone as hermetic as Henry Darger.
Stross quickly has Freya on the go, harried by deadly enemies and ultimately finding some protection in the employ of the mysterious Jeeves Corp, ferrying illicit cargo around the solar system. Through some quite clever and plausible plotting, we get a Cook's Tour of the solar system: Mercury, Mars, Callisto (a moon of Jupiter), and Eris (outermost planetoid). All the relevant back-story of humankind's demise and the subsequent centuries of posthuman development are dispensed through clever dialogue and contextual tidbits, not a crude info dump in sight. We learn that the androids have organized themselves into a stratified social system in which only about ten percent are free individuals, while the rest are slave laborers or indentured servants. It's a stark commentary on our own age of income inequality. Afoot is a plot to reinstantiate us "pink goo" humans.
Freya's voice is a deliberate tribute to Robert Heinlein's female characters, signaled by the book's explicit dedication to Heinlein and Asimov, and by numerous textual Easter Eggs. The depiction of such a literary construct — not entirely contiguous with female humans as they actually exist, no more than Philip Marlowe resembles real private eyes — is brilliantly done. Freya emerges in charming fashion, one of the main delights of the tale. It's like reading a mashup of Podkayne of Mars and Friday, layered with the latter-day decadence of Richard Calder's Dead Girls and some of John Varley's 1970s work.
Stross rethinks all his chosen SF tropes and furniture: from future economies to the demands of slower-than-light space travel to the matters of personal identity when memories can be shared. His high quotient of fresh invention is awe-inspiring. He accepts no received wisdom but reimagines everything. The level of work involved here is astonishing, but the storytelling still diffuses an effortless air. Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 comes close to this standard, but it is plainly indebted to Stross's book as trailblazer, even down to similar scenes on Mercury and the notion of using asteroids as spaceships.
Of course, Stross ups the ante in Neptune's Brood. He does so by jumping millennia ahead (humankind has risen and fallen three more times since our initial extinction); by building many strange new venues (a practice about which he candidly blogs at his publisher's site); and by layering in the "dismal science," economics, as a plot engine, in a vibrant manner unique to his talents. (If the notion of economics-based SF makes you recall the great parody of Star Wars on The Simpsons, where the characters suffered through hours of cinematic droning about "trade agreements," rest assured that Stross's handling of the subject is lively, funny, and fascinating.) From his invention of three types of money (slow, medium, and fast) to his thoughts on funding star colonies, he comes up with zesty notions that never fail to stimulate thought.
And of course we get a great protagonist, Krina Alizond-114. Unlike Freya, who was both a girly-girl escort and deadly secret agent, Krina is, by training and inclination, an academic, a historian of money who works for a bank, a "mendicant savant." You might consider her a super-accountant of sorts. And as she herself notes, such an occupation makes for an unlikely adventurer. (Maybe the most unlikely since Piers Anthony wrote about a space-going dentist in Prostho Plus.) Yet despite her mild proclivities, Krina displays considerable intelligence, fortitude, and drive. Her first-person narration is just as charming and inveigling as Freya's, and her exploits just as awesome.
The MacGuffin that propels Krina's odyssey is a missing woman named Ana Graulle-90, who just happens to possess information about a fabulous lost treasure, the Atlantis Carnet. This incredibly valuable financial instrument resulted from a bold scam that perverted the nature of slow money and star colonization. As Krina explains, interstellar exploration is already a kind of vast, sanctioned Ponzi scheme. But the organizers of the Atlantis expedition went even further with their fiscal shenanigans, accumulating a huge hoard without providing real collateral. That stash has been missing for millennia, but now Krina has it in her sights.
Her treasure hunting is attended by a variety of cutthroat rascals, nonpareils, and scoundrels, traversing some truly exotic venues. She has to wrangle passage at first onboard a giant spaceship cathedral dedicated to spreading "pink goo" humanity across the galaxy. Then she gets shanghaied by the batlike Captain Rudi, that worst kind of villain: a pirate turned insurance adjustor. On the planet Shin-Tethys, a miraculous waterworld whose submarine "laminar kingdoms" are arrayed in concentric polities, Krina undergoes unwanted bodily metamorphoses to a bizarre form. Finally, she confronts her own ancestral matriarch in a possible battle to the death.
Stross's humor-rich fiduciary blood-and-thunder caper owes a not-so-secret debt, I believe, to such predecessors as Alfred Bester's Monte Cristo–esque The Stars My Destination and Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia, which in an earlier incarnation was tellingly titled The Boy Who Bought Old Earth. Stross stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these forerunners. But whatever its lineage, this newest offering is a gilt-edged investment that can only appreciate in value.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo
“I can get you a cheaper ticket if you let me amputate your legs: I can even take your thighs as a deposit,” said the travel agent. He was clearly trying hard to be helpful: “It’s not as if you’ll need them where you’re going, is it?”
“Is it possible to find a better price by booking me on a different routing?” I asked. “I’m very attached to my limbs.” (Quaint and oldfashioned, that’s me.) “Also,” I hedged, “I don’t have much fast money.” The agent sighed. His two eyes were beautiful: enormous violet photoreceptors that gleamed with a birefringent sheen. “Ms. Alizond. Krina. How can I put this? That could be a problem.” He hesitated for only a moment: “Do you have any longerterm funds? Anything you can convert . . .? ”
I shook my head. “I only got here ten days—sorry, about a million seconds—ago, and I haven’t had time to cash in any investments. I need to get to ShinTethys as fast as possible.”
He looked pained. It was a warning sign I recognized well—he was on the cusp of deciding that I was just another penniless refugee, and any moment now he was going to slam down the shutters: Why are you wasting my time? I’d done it myself often enough to recognize the symptoms.
“I converted everything I had into slow money before I emigrated, as viscous as possible,” I said hastily.
At least he didn’t tell me to get out of his office. I could see his cupidity battling his cynicism—is she delusional? Cupidity won, narrowly: “Everything you’ve got is in slow money? Then how have you been eating?”
“Badly.” He’d finally stepped out of role, revealing irrelevant curiosity; that was an opening I could use. Pathos first: “I’ve been sleeping on park benches and eating municipal gash to reduce my outgoings.” (The raw, unprocessed hydrocarbon feedstock is vile but free: the good burghers of Taj Beacon provide it because it’s cheaper than employing police to pacify the lumpen cattle by force.) “What cents I have I can’t afford to upconvert in a hurry.”
“So you’ve gone long? All the way long, everything locked down in slow money? Not even some medium dollars?” His eyes widened very slightly at the hint of cents, plural—which meant I had his full and undivided attention. Gotcha. He smoothly pivoted into oleaginous deference: “But surely you’re aware that as little as a tenth of a slow cent could buy you a month in the most palatial palazzo in—”
“Yes, I’m very much aware of that.” I had my opening. Now I narrowed my eyes and cut back on the vulnerability: I wanted him to want to make me feel I owed him some payback at a future time, not drool all over my wallet in the present. “I don’t want to sell my soul just yet. I really don’t. What I want to do is get to ShinTethys with all possible speed, using only fast money, cash in hand. Maybe when I’ve completed my work, and it’s time to head home, I’ll be able to splash out, charter a luxury yacht . . .”
“Oh.” He looked crestfallen. “Well, I’m not sure that’s going to be possible, Sera Alizond. You see, you’re too late.”
“Um?” He appeared to be entirely sincere. This was not what I wanted to hear! What I wanted was for this smalltime hustler to go out of his way to get me a quiet unobtrusive berth, in hope of a payoff down the line.
“If you’d incarnated just ten million seconds ago, I had passenger berths down to ShinTethys coming out of my ears, going unsold! But we’re past inferior conjunction now, heading toward superior, and you won’t get a straight transfer orbit for love or favors. Your only option is to pay for additional delta vee, and that costs real money. Not to mention that there’s a huge mass penalty. You’d need to charter a capsule specifically for . . .” He trailed off and glanced at my legs again, then did a double take. “Unless . . .” He glanced into his desktop, fingerdoodled some questions to an invisible amanuensis: “Please excuse me, I was looking for passenger vessels. It might be possible for me to arrange a working passage for you if you have any appropriate skills.” He paused again, his timing perfect. I couldn’t help but admire his expert manipulation even as I resented it. “You said you came in from, was it Hector? They have Fragiles there, don’t they. Tell me, would you have a problem working with meatsacks?”
“Meat?” I didn’t have to feign surprise. “I don’t think so . . .” I was about to volunteer my profession, but he focused on his desktop again, shutting me out.
“There’s an opening for a shiphand in the laborexchange listing.” Into which he was, of course, plugged, the better to earn his commission as a recruiter. “Let me see . . .” He referred to the desktop clipped to the wall beside him. “It’s on board a religious vehicle—a chapel—that’s en route to ShinTethys. It’s not exactly a fast liner, but it’s better than a minimumenergy cargo pod. They put in for repairs here because of some sort of technical trouble, and they’ve only just got it sorted out. Let’s see . . . the requirement is for semi or unskilled labor, but you need to be able to work in standard gravity, and more importantly, be of traditional bodily form, which rules out a lot of people. It’s conditional on your satisfying the sailing master about your piety,” he added by way of a warning. “I can’t help you there. The interview is entirely up to you. They’re supposed to provide training on the job. That’ll be fifty dollars fast, refundable if you don’t get the berth. Assuming you want it and can afford—”
“I do, and I can.” It was cheaper than I could have hoped for, and I had no problem with the idea of a working passage; it would help avoid the tedium of a longduration flight. Delayed by some sort of problem. Their misfortune: my profit.
I held out a hand and flashed it, allowing the numinous glow of hot cash to light up the chromatophores in the webbing between my fingers. “It’s just the Church of the Fragile, yes? Pious worshippers tending to the holy flesh, keeping it from rotting as they fulfill their mission to the stars?”
“That’s my understanding.” He nodded. “That, and routine cleaning chores. They may be religious, but they’re pragmatists. As long as you’re not heretically inclined . . .? ”
“No, nothing like that!” Tending meat: In all our years, I don’t think any of my lineage has ever done that. But beggars can’t be choosers—not even mendicant scholars masquerading as beggars. We shook on the deal, and his palm flickered red, the escrow lock pulsing rapidly. “I’ll just be going. If you’d maybe tell me where . . .? ”
“Certainly.” He smiled, evidently pleased with himself, then passed me the coordinates. “You want Node Six, Docking Attachment Delta. The Blessed Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Restriction Endonuclease is parked outside—in quarantine because of the meat. That’s normal in such circumstances, you know. Ask for Deacon Dennett. They will be expecting you.”
What I was unaware of:
I had a stalker.
Most people are autonomes; selfowning, selfdirected, conscious. It is the glory and tragedy of autonomes that they experience the joy of selfand the terror of the ultimate dissolution of self into nonexistence at the end of life. You are an autonome: So am I.
The stalker was not an autonome. Despite looking outwardly human and imprinted with a set of human memories, the cortical nodes within its skull were not configured to give rise to a sense of self. The person who sent the stalker believed that consciousness was a liability and a handicap that might impair its ability to fulfill its mission: to hunt down and kill me.
The stalker had a full briefing on me, but didn’t know much about what I was doing in Dojima System, other than the fact of my arrival and its instructions for my disposal.
I later learned that my stalker beamed into Taj Beacon barely a million seconds after I did. We’d both been sent more than a decade earlier, via the beacon in high orbit around GJ 785: Our packet streams overlapped for months as the Taj Beacon buffered and checksummed, decrypted and decompressed, and finally downloaded two neural streams onto soul chips for installation in newly built bodies, paid for by the slow money draft signed and attached at the origin of our transmission. I awakened first, my new body molded to a semblance of my previous phenotype by the configuration metadata attached to the soul transmission. I completed the immigration formalities and left the arrivals hall before the killer opened its eyes.
While I was on Taj Beacon, I was unaware of its existence.
But I found out all too soon.
The travel agent’s office was a fabric bag attached to one of the structural trusses that braced the vast, freefall souk at the heart of Taj Beacon’s commons. I really hated the souk; having gotten what I went there for, I ran away as fast as I could.
I confess to you that I lied to the travel agent about my assets. When I arrived, almost the first thing I did was to cautiously convert a couple of slow cents into fast money. I did it reluctantly. The best slowtofast exchange rate I could find here was usurious—I took a 92percent hit on the public rate, never mind what a relative would have fronted me—but to upconvert with full and final settlement via the issuing bank would take nearly a billion seconds: It’s not called slow money for nothing. I was not, in fact, sleeping on park benches and subsisting on raw hydrocarbon slurry: But I saw no need to advertise the fact that I had 7.02 slow dollars signed and sealed to my soul chips, and another 208.91 medium dollars at my fingertips. That much money walking around unguarded was an invitation to a mugging or worse.
Taj Beacon is and was the main gateway for information and currency flows entering and leaving Dojima System. It hosts multiple communication lasers, pointed at the star systems with which Dojima trades directly. As commonly happens, the burghers of Taj Beacon have a vested interest in maintaining a choke hold on interstellar commerce. Consequently, they scheme to prevent rival groups from establishing their own beacons. And so it is that, in addition to the high priesthood of financiers and factors who worked the banks and bureaux de change and bourse, the operations managers and engineers who maintained the interstellar communications lasers, and the usual workers you might find on any deepspace habitat, Taj is host to numerous loan sharks, grifters, labor brokers, and slavers.
I was traveling alone, and my only contact in the entire system had gone missing—so to say I was isolated would be an understatement. Under the circumstances, drawing attention to myself by flashing my assets seemed like a really bad idea. I therefore lived cautiously, using anonymous cash to rent a cramped arbeiter’s pod in an unfashionable highgee zone, going through the public motions of seeking employment, trying to remain inconspicuous—and meanwhile looking for a ship out of this festering sinkhole of villainy.
As for the souk: Some combination of the disorienting lack of local verticalia, the density of bodies, the shouting of offers, the mixture of smells, and the fluctuating hash of electromagnetic noise combined to make me claustrophobic whenever I had to visit an establishment there. But what really got to me was the advertising.
The souk is a public space. Unless you pay up for a pricey privacy filter, every move you make is fodder for a thousand behavioral search engines, which bombard you with stimuli and monitor your autonomic responses in order to dynamically evolve more attractive ads. Images of desire bounce off blank surfaces for your eyes only, ghostly haptic fingertips run across your skin, ghostly lascivious offers beam right inside your ears. Are we getting hotter? Colder? Does this make you feel good? I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by excessive filtering. But I wasn’t used to the naked hard selling: My earlier life hadn’t prepared me for it, and the ads made me feel bilious and lovestricken, invaded and debauched by a coldly mechanical lust for whatever fetish the desire machines were pushing at their victims at any given instant. The mindless persistence with which the adbots attempted to coax the lifemoney from their targets was disturbing. Though I hadn’t been on Taj long, I had already learned to hate the sensation. The soulsickening sense of need ebbed and faded from moment to moment as I moved from one hidden persuader’s cell to the next, leaving me feeling vulnerable and friendless.
Alienated? Friendlorn? Desirous of luxurious foods or eager prostitutes? We can torment and titillate until you pay for sweet release . . .
Beacon stations are the choke points of interstellar trade, positioned to extract value from the slow money of the dissatisfied and the desperate as they pass through the network. Taj Beacon is the worst I’ve ever visited, possibly a holdover from its foundation in the wake of the great Atlantis depression, over two millennia ago: The result is a frenzied vortex of dionysiac capitalism presided over by a grasping, vicious plutocracy, boiling and churning in the frigid wastes on the edge of the star system. All because the beacon lay in the trailing trojan point of the innermost gas giant, between the outer belt and hab colonies and the populated inner system that generated the traffic. Taj’s founders were in the right place at the right time, and they and their descendants took it as a de facto license to seek rent.
Surviving the barrage of ads with my sense of purpose intact and my purse unravished required selfdiscipline and a willingness to shut down my facial nerves and chromatophores completely—and preferably to shut my eyes and ears as well. Counting features of the ads helped me ignore the content; I kept tally of the products, descriptions, and associated emotional cues as I pushed through, as a tenuous gesture of defiance. (Eleven ads, averaging six iterations per minute, in case you were wondering.) And, after far too long, I managed to make my escape into the civilized lowgee suburbs, then back to my cheap, rented, capsule apartment.
Calling it an apartment is, perhaps, an exaggeration. A cube of nearly thirty meters’ volume, it held my bed (a blood blue cocoon purchased from a thrift store), a couple of changes of clothing suitable for different social contexts, a twometer retina with a ripped corner that I’d rescued from a recycler and tacked to one wall for visualizations and entertainment, a readypacked bag in case I had to leave in a hurry, and a crate where I kept my feed. I’d visited worse slums, but not often and never to live there by choice.
On the other hand, there was nothing here to attract the attention of my neighbors. Most of the other residents were laborers or fractionalreserve servants of one variety or another: poor but sufficiently respectable not to attract the attention of the secret police. (Not that the SPs cared about anything except direct threats of sedition or subversion that might impair their patrons’ ability to keep their salaries flowing. Accept capitalism into your heart, and you were almost certainly safe, except for the occasional unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Yet another reason not to dwell here too long . . .)
I flopped back onto my bed and waved at the retina. “Any mail?” I asked halfheartedly.
“Good evenshift, Krina! I’m sorry, there’s nothing new for you today.” I’d given it an avatar, the facial map and mannerisms of my sib Briony—but left the eyes empty, to remind me there was no person behind them. “A communiqué from your cousin Andrea”—a sib of another generation from mine—“is buffering now and will be complete within two thousand seconds. Price of release is thirtytwo fast. Do you wish to accept?”
I swore under my breath—not at the retina, lest it misinterpret. But rentseeking intermediaries with a monopoly on interstellar commerce would have been a good candidate for the bane of my life had they not also become the source of my income (by a cosmic irony that I no longer found even remotely humorous). In this case, the station’s official receiver had decided that Andrea’s incoming message was inconveniently large, or that the exchange rate since its transmission began (at least twelve years ago, assuming she was still back home) had fluctuated sufficiently to justify levying a supplementary fee. In any event, what was I going to do? I could pay the additional service fee or miss the message. Which might be something as banal as a we’re all missing you, come home safe and soon or as vitally important as word that my entire multiyear mission was pointless, that the longlost property had been picked up by a rival syndicate.
“Accept and debit my account,” I said aloud. I paused to update my expenses sheet and stared gloomily at the dwindling cash float: Today was turning out to be very costly indeed. “Have there been any more responses to my primary search? ” I asked the retina.
“No new responses!” I winced. I’d spent another chunk of fast money a week ago, buying a broadcast search—not merely of Taj Beacon’s publicinformation systems, but propagated systemwide—for news of Ana. Who had now been missing for over a hundred days, since shortly after I began to download into the arrival hall’s buffers—a suspicious coincidence, in my view, given that she had lived in the same floating city on ShinTethys for over twenty years. “Three archived responses. Do you wish to review them?”
“No.” I had them off by rote memory: One anxious inquiry from an outoftouch friend of Ana’s (I think an exlover); a request for an interview from the local police (doubtless wondering why an outsystem visitor was interested in a missing person); and a debtcollection agency wondering who was going to pay the rent on her pod. It was depressing to think how faint the mark she’d left behind must be, that so few people were interested in her disappearance. (Much like me, in fact. Loneliness is our only reliable companion when we fish the well of time for magic coins.) “Download and archive Andrea’s packet in my second slot as soon as it’s available.” A thought struck me. “Transaction with M. Hebert, travel agent: laborexchange placement. When does it time out?”
“Your offer closes in four thousand four hundred seconds! Placement vessel preparing for departure!” My retina chirped.
What? The agent didn’t tell me it was leaving so soon! I looked around my cube in a momentary panic, then realized there was virtually nothing here that I couldn’t replace easily enough. I grabbed my go bag, already stuffed with a spare change of clothes and a palmsized retina: “Dump Andrea’s packet into my number two soul chip as soon as you’ve got it, then erase yourself,” I told my sister’s holloweyed face on the wall: “I’m out of here for good.”
An hour later, I arrived at a docking node in an old part of the station. It was all grubby metal and delaminating anticorrosion treatments, the lights flickering, ventilation ducts howling mournfully behind rattling panels. Fat umbilical trunks snaked between nodes and across exposed walls, floors, and ceilings, their papery shrouds rippling in the breeze: Odd gelatinous globules hang quivering from leaky pipes, their surfaces fogged and filthy with trapped dust and fluff. There was a marked lack of life in this place, a sense that here the bones of the world were showing through the skin.
I found myself afloat in the middle of a desolate sixway crossroads. It took a few seconds for me to compose myself before the next step. At times like this, I have always been susceptible to a weary, familiar dread. I was on my own here; if Ana was dead (as seemed likely), I was the only one of my kind in this entire star system, and my generation in my lineage is not one that is comfortable with solitary working. I’m a creature of habit and a team player—by design. I’d been up and alive on Taj Beacon for around a million seconds: time enough to develop a routine, even as a near downandout in an unfriendly and highly competitive realm.