Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
To understand this review properly, you need to rehearse a little of what you know about the history of science fiction. There have been several people deemed one of the “greats”. Perhaps the one getting the most votes would be Robert A Heinlein (alongside Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and others). In a way this reflects a number of features about what he wrote. Most importantly, he was a “thinker”, not particularly committed to any particular point of view and prepared to express unpopular opinions about a wide variety of different social phenomena, e.g. on racism. If anything, he was a man of evolving opinions, starting off as anti-communist, pro-military and “conservative”, and ending up more committed to the notion of freedom, in the widest sense of the word including, not uncontroversially, sexual freedom. Secondly, he wrote in a very accessible style so that, whether he was actually intending his readership to be adult or juvenile, almost everyone could grok what he was talking about. Interestingly, many of his books feature strong female characters which tended to make his books more widely read across the gender divide. In short, he popularised science fiction. Moving down the pecking order of popularity, we come to Mack Reynolds who carved out a niche for himself by exploring the economics of the future. If Heinlein was thinking about who was going to be important in the future, e.g. the heroic Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Filipino, Reynolds was doing the grunt work in calculating out who was going to be paying for it all. He was wonderfully sceptical about the notion of utopia with many books and stories looking at what’s most likely to go wrong and what might follow the collapse of an apparently ideal society.
All of which brings me to Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Penguin/Berkley, 2013), a sequel to Saturn’s Children. At so many different levels, this book blends the interests of Heinlein and Reynolds, producing a particularly pleasing package. This is not the first time Stross has walked down this road. The Merchant Princes series examines the differences in culture emerging on parallel Earths. Obviously, the trading options depend on reconciling technological imbalances and political outlooks. He’s answering questions like what an essentially late mediaeval or Victorian world would have to trade with our contemporary world and vice versa. This book is exploring how any civilisation could finance slower than light colonisation. The answer is completely unexpected and absolutely captivating. Let’s just pause for a moment. If we assume the colony world accepts it is indebted to the “mother” planetary system, how would it pay off the debt if it takes a century to fly from one to the other? The answer comes in the development of slow money. The problem with cash is that it’s inherently volatile. Markets boom and bust, the values of currencies fluctuate. Such mediums of exchange are inadequate for debt that may have to span several centuries. Even adopting commodities like gold may not have the requisite quality of longevity because who’s to say the commodity we consider valuable today will retain that value in five hundred years time when the debt might fall due? So an upper tier of money for transactions between star systems is necessary and most elegantly explored in this book.
Of course economic development never occurs in a vacuum. There has to be a supportive cultural context and it must be resilient enough to withstand attacks from both within and without. Take the phenomenon of crime as an example. Where there’s money, there are people who covet it and seek to possess it. Some may resort to violence. Other may prefer more subtle means. As we scale up to relations between countries and, in due course, between sovereign planetary systems, we can get into the grey areas of piracy as opposed to a privateer operating under letters of marque issued by a sovereign body. Of course, in the scenario we have here, planetary systems might be indebted to banks and it would be such organisations who might assume the power to issue letters of marque, particularly if the planets were in default on their loans. Indeed, privateers might have to assume the role of accountants or auditors if they are to calculate the amounts of money owing and what value might replace it.
When you put all this together, you have one of the most appealing set-ups of the last decade. Our heroine is a forensic accountant and historian who’s taken a particular interest in old frauds. She’s on her slow way between planets, studying and researching as she goes, when she gets a message from her sister, alerting her to possible danger. Since they have been collaborating on trying to track down a particularly interesting old debt instrument, it’s likely one of the fraudulent parties involved may be out to stop them from making progress in the investigation. This forces her to change her flight plans and hop on a Church on its way to the next system. When the Church is hailed by “pirates”, it rapidly becomes clear our heroine is attracting trouble. Were she to be human, she would be alarmed and not a little paranoid. As a post-human robot (the humans keep dying out only to be resurrected by the robots), she takes a more phlegmatic view of the world, causality and the passage of time. Such beings can afford to take the longer view, particularly when their chips can be backed up and installed in new bodies.
Overall, this makes Neptune’s Brood a delightful way of exploring human obsessions about money and property through this everyday story of robot folk and their conquest of the stars. This is one of the best books by Stross for years.