Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children

Charles Stross's Saturn's Children depicts a post-humanity future in the solar system; all the characters are various forms of robots, and many have recognizable and sympathetic feelings, goals and aspirations. The humans died out a few hundred years ago but neglected to think about how their posterity would get along in their absence.

Stross has created a very interesting society here. Many of the robots (the focal characters, particularly) were designed to be personal servants to the humans, and their drives are very much shaped around the desires of their absent masters. Others, less constrained, use these drives to control and shape them. The basic conflict is over whether it's possible or desirable to bring back humans. If this could be done and they could be managed, then whoever controlled the humans would have immense power because of the drive to serve the humans that is built in to so many of the robots.

The background is fascinating in that any robot that was expected to work in the presence of humans was designed to have strong strictures to honor and obey them, which leaves them in a strangely constrained state now that the humans aren't around. All the apparatus of government is still in place, and no decisions can be made or changed without humans to vote or make an administrative decision. So the government runs on auto-pilot, and many projects that made sense--terraforming to create new habitable territories--are senseless when the robots can adapt to harsh environments much more easily. And robots that are more able to bend their internal definitions of what the humans wanted are less constrained.

The basic conflict sheds light on thoughts about freedom and free will. Freya, the main character, was designed as a sex-bot, but she was first activated long after the humans had died out, so her drive to serve them is unrequited. Her design gives her some special abilities (cosmetic enhancement gives her an innate talent for disguise and her adjustable high-heeled feet (as Laurie Anderson sang) come in handy in combat and escape. But most of the time, she's a free agent, other than having to serve employers and mentors. Self-ownership is a concrete idea in this society. All the robots originally had owners, but the ultimate owners are now gone from the scene, so each robot is owned by some corporation. Being self-owned means controlling the corporation that owns your body. Unfortunately, some of the robots are rich enough that they can sue others into bankruptcy, and buy their corporations, so there's no safety in owning your corporation. In addition to the slave chips that get used occasionally, ownership conveys control by allowing one being to assert "control level nine" and require absolute obedience of another. Of course, if the subservient one can convince herself of doubts about the authenticity of the ownership, she can escape the fetters.

Overall, this is a fun romp. Stross displays a strong sense of humor, and Freya is a joy to watch. Many of the service machines and tools are aware and interactive, and Stross is quite inventive in giving them interesting drives and quirks. The political implications are interesting, but mostly not the focus of the story. It calls itself "A Space Opera" and it is that, with the addition of interesting personalities and new viewpoints on how our robot progeny will live and think. Saturn's Children is a finalist for the Prometheus Award. The freedom orientation is too subtle to win in what has turned out to be a year with some very strong candidates. It's a lot of fun to read none-the-less.

No comments: