One of the charmingly weird things about Charles Stross' new novel Saturn's Children is that he manages to include every single cliche of sexual perversion you've seen on the net — and make them somehow fit plausibly into the plot. The author of the critically-acclaimed Halting State has written a fast-paced thriller about Freya, a sexbot designed to service humans, who lives in a solar system where humans died out 300 years before. A freak among bots, she's programmed to look like and lust after something that doesn't exist. Her life is meaningless and depressing until she takes a job smuggling black market "pink goo" (human cells) for a shady bot named Jeeves. There's a lot to enjoy (and mull over) in this often-satirical novel, and one of the most interesting parts is that Freya comes from a line of "Rhea model" sexbots who share memories and lovers — just like the beautiful cylons in Battlestar Galatica do.
Like Stross' 2005 novel Glasshouse, about humans who are randomly assigned genders to participate in an experiment with recreating the twentieth century, Saturn's Children is filled with interesting ideas about what it means to live in a body that you can discard or reshape pretty much at will. After humans die out, most bots model themselves on non-human forms or take on the visages of anime characters. Upper class bots remain fashionable by stretching their eyes to enormous anime sizes, and turning their hair into stiff, blue feathers. Their bot slaves are modeled on the "super deformed" style of anime character, short and squat, perfect for space travel that costs so much per pound that many bots prefer to amputate their limbs and buy new ones when they dock to save money.
One of the central conceits of Saturn's Children is that the bots' neurology is copied wholesale from humans' because the humans never figured out a way to create A.I. from scratch. That means bot brains are basically human — with all the attendant emotions and contradictions — except for one thing. They've all been hardwired to obey humans. As a result, as Freya observes repeatedly, the bot society that humans leave behind is about 70 percent slaves. A few lucky bots who have earned enough money own most of the other bots, controlling them via slave chips.
Freya and her sisters in the Rhea line are some of the lucky free agents who have established their freedom by creating shell corporations that "own" them (since robots use human law, and under human law no robot can be free, the bots have used weird legal loopholes like this to establish personal sovereignty). Over the hundreds of years they've been alive, the Rhea sisters have traded their memory chips back and forth, sharing memories and often merging their personalities partially as a result. Bereft of their "one true love," the humans, many of Freya's line have chosen to kill themselves. But others have found purpose in life by getting involved in an elaborate conspiracy to recreate humans out of the forbidden "pink goo" — and possibly liberate all the slave bots in the process.
As the plot thickens, and Freya gets involved (in all sorts of ways) with the line of humanoid Jeeves robots, Stross is able to give us a first-person sense of what it would feel like to be an individual who also has a limited collective consciousness. As I mentioned earlier, this novel felt to me like it was partly an effort to explore the minds of the sexbot-esque cylons on BSG. Freya hears the voices of her sisters in her mind, and experiences proxy feelings for the people they love (or hate), which is both confusing and ultimately life-saving for her. It also means she has the erotic dreams of her sisters, too, which comes in handy during those 4-year journeys across the solar system in nuke-powered ships with nothing to do but jack off.
There is a lot of jacking off in this book. And tentacle sex, and bondage, and lesbian sex, and sex with sentient hotel furniture, and sex with spaceships, and sex in space elevators, and sex with multiple siblings, and sex under the influence of slave chip mind control, and there is almost a scene of sex in front of a huge room full of people who have come to an auction. But here's the weird thing: None of it is particularly arousing, and when it happens it really is just so naturally part of the plot that you barely notice (after all, Freya is a sexbot so of course she has sex with everything). I have to admit, I was disappointed when Stross relentlessly kept the tone silly ("I feel him ventilating," Freya says of one lover) instead of erotic. However, I think his point is well-taken: For Freya, sex is just a body function she's been programmed for. It's not so much erotic as autonomic.
He may go goofy when it comes to sex, but one thing Stross is serious about is trying to represent space travel accurately. Anybody who has read his rant about how stupid it is to imagine that humans could travel in space knows that he's got a bone to pick, and pick it he does. There is no FTL here, and the only reason why anybody gets anywhere in the solar system in less than a decade is because they're robots whose bodies can withstand strains no human could.
So you'll want to come to this space thriller for hard science fun, and a little sexytime, but you'll stay because Stross always raises interesting philosophical questions that stick around in your brain. For example, what does it mean to be you if you are also partly your siblings? And how can you have freedom when your brain is programmed to serve, even if it's only to serve an absent master? The answers are always more complicated than you think.
Saturn's Children [via Amazon]
Saturn's Children has been nominated for a 2009 Hugo. Read about all the 2009 book award nominees here.