"It is a truth universally acknowledged that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker." If that line makes you giggle, feel free to rush out and purchase Charles Stross’s newest novel Neptune’s Brood, a comedy of banking and manners with some chase scenes and explosions thrown in for good measure.
This standalone novel takes place in the same universe as his last book, Saturn’s Children. But rather than sexbots and the search for identity, Stross gives us bankers and the search for a missing cousin. And a lot of economics.
Krina Alizond-114 is a historian of accountancy practices. She’s also a human wildly unlike today’s humans, who are referred to as “fragiles.” Her cells are mechanocytes that can be reprogrammed for better survival in the vacuum of space or in the high pressure depths of the ocean. Her mind and soul are downloadable and she can survive on electricity or processed “feedstock.” Grown along the basic lines of her fragile human predecessors, Krina still has emotions and autonomic responses like blushing. Stross’s ability to walk the line between “human” and “metahuman” makes the characters feel real, while still allowing him to put a fascinating spin on what precisely we expect from characters. He also gets to let Krina blink ice off her eyeballs.
And it’s a good thing Krina is so (comparatively) tough. Her search for her missing cousin/sister – they’re both grown from the same lineage, though at different times – will send her into the clutches of religious fanatics, zombies, piratical insurance underwriters, mermaids and communists. Both Krina's life and bodily autonomy are regularly placed in jeopardy.
The plot is simple enough – finding Krina’s cousin, and finding out why a bunch of people want Krina dead. We're carried along by Krina’s voice, a blend of old-timey syntax, naivete and what seems to be inadvertent (for Krina anyway) humor, like this: “If one must choose which space to share with a possibly homicidal lunatic, then one should pick the one with the most hiding places.” In to this bubbly mixture, Stross adds bunches of SAT-II vocabulary words and an explanation of how an entire interstellar banking system could operate at sub-light speeds.
It’s fair to say that there are a lot of infodumps in the book. In fact, an individual’s ability to thrill to the complexities of trade and commerce in a slower than light, interstellar civilization where individuals are fabricated and regularly live for hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands and thousands) of years may be directly correlated to whether a reader loves or hates this book.
As someone who took economics tests in high school for fun, I may have enjoyed the whole thing more than people who like their space operas with more shoot-outs. I was fascinated by the difference between interstellar and interplanetary trade and Stross’s envisioning of a system that could fund the creation of entire starships and human colonies. In some ways, these sections read like hard military sci-fi. Krina is clearly in love with banking as much as many protagonists love their battleships and bullets. With economics being less of a hard science than the physics and engineering behind this type of book, it seems better to refer to the Neptune’s Brood as dense, rather than hard, science fiction.
Stross’s best invention in the book is idea of “slow money” – not to be confused with the current idea of investing in socially responsible local agriculture, a play on the idea of “slow food” – money whose very lack of liquidity makes it a stable investment tool for millennially long term projects is a piece of the interstellar colonization puzzle that had never been in place before. It makes Stross’s universe, as well as Krina’s quest feel like a realistic outgrowth of the world we live in. After all, what’s grittier and more realistic than crushing debt forced onto future generations?
But it’s not all lectures and tri-partite monetary exchanges. There’s a silly side as well. Krina refers to herself as “not really armed, unless you count my spreadsheet.” She also meets a count who looks like a giant bat. Of course, count is short for accountant. The book is filled with moments like these as well as plenty of allusions to pop culture. Stross works in a bit of everything from Conan Doyle to Monty Python. He even takes what seems to be a swipe at Amazon by naming a scavenger worm ‘bezos.’
The novel is strong and fascinating right up until the end. The ending felt sudden, but I’m hoping that’s because Stross isn’t done with Krina and her sisters yet. You’re probably not looking for a fun spin through a science-fictional banking system — but if you are, or even if you’re not, Neptune’s Brood is definitely a great book to check out. With our real-life banking and international trade system becoming ever more complex and crisis-prone, this is a perfect book for the times we live in.