Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

October 17, 2013 at 1:39 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Neptune's Brood coverWhen it rains, it pours. Hot on the heels of my review here on this blog of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes my review of another hard science fiction novel, Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, over on Strange Horizons. They actually make an interesting pair, as they both are focused on worldbuilding almost to a fault, but where 2312 surrounds its world with stylish storytelling, Neptune’s Brood pares down in search of clarity.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 14, 2013 at 2:12 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

2312 coverIt’s easy to understand why 2312 was nominated for the 2013 Best Novel Hugo. Its wonderfully detailed vision of humanity spread across the solar system doesn’t compromise any scientific rigor but still recalls the the genre’s lost, lamented models of colonization from before authors understood the implications of the rocket equation. It manages to do this without ever feeling stodgy or old-fashioned, and its two primary protagonists are impressively realized characters, a rarity in this sort of diamond-hard science fiction.

But it’s also easy to understand why it didn’t win. All the great details of the setting don’t ever congeal into a consistent world, the plot staggers from one spectacular set piece to another without regard for pacing or political verisimilitude, and however well-drawn the protagonists, one is frequently infuriating and both are almost entirely passive.

The first of the viewpoint characters is Swan, an artist who is the granddaughter of Alex, the leading political figure on Mercury and an extremely influential person in the solar system at large until her death just before the book begins. With humans now enjoying lifespans lasting around two hundred years, Swan is vaguely middle-aged at one hundred and eleven, but in many ways she acts like an adolescent, chafing under the weight of her grandmother’s legacy, living the life of a dilettante, taking foolish risks even though, or perhaps because, they infuriate her friends and family, and in general doing her best to avoid being saddled with any genuine responsibility for anything. Contrasting Swan is the other principal protagonist, Wahram, a diplomat from Titan and a member of Alex’s pan-solar political faction who is trying to pick up the pieces of their movement after her death. Somewhat older than Swan, Wahram is even-tempered to a fault, treasuring his routine and feeling anxious whenever it’s disrupted, a man who very much appreciates art but who doesn’t create it himself.

This two nuanced characters are built from, of all things, a pun. Swan, from Mercury, is mercurial, you see. She’s quick to anger, lashing out at her friends even when she knows their intentions are good, and when faced with a setback she runs and hides both psychologically and, when possible, physically. Wahram, from Saturn, is, yes, saturnine. He’s steady, measured, polite, and mature. The two meet because of their shared connection to Alex and because Wahram admires Swan’s art, and in a weaker novel they would fall in love at once. Instead, throughout the story they have an on-again, off-again association that only slowly becomes romantic. Opposites attracting is a bit of a cliche, but it makes some sense here. Wahram’s presence serves to curb Swan’s wilder impulses while Swan’s spontaneity helps expose Wahram to new things.

The big problem here is that although the congenial Wahram is a very likable person, the sort of protagonist who can easily hold the reader’s sympathies, Swan’s childish immaturity makes her very difficult to put up with in what is otherwise a very serious novel. That this is intentional–the other characters frequently remark on how annoying she can be and even Wahram admits that perhaps she is best dealt with in small doses–doesn’t change the fact that her sections take up about half the novel and the reader doesn’t have Wahram’s option of going somewhere else for a few months when she gets too hard to take. Or rather, the reader can put down the book, but whether they’ll actually pick up the book again is another question.

Mileage will vary on this and there’s no law that says all protagonists have to be responsible and adult, but Swan’s immaturity makes her proximity to the novel’s actual plot feel forced. That Swan knows the movers and shakers of the solar system via her grandmother is believable; that anyone would listen to what she has to say is not. And yet somehow Swan ends up being present for plenty of important and even secret discussions (this despite other characters’ oft-repeated concerns that Swan can’t be trusted, concerns Swan agrees with and through her actions justifies). Perhaps even more unbelievably, she always seems well-supplied and well-funded, something usually not even remarked upon by the narrative but occasionally explained by vague reference to Alex’s faction. The only consolation is that Swan rarely if ever actually influences the events unfolding around her, but then, neither does Wahram, contributing to a corrosive feeling that these characters are overlaid on top of the plot without actually touching it.

The story is basically a whodunit, with the it being a series of terrorist attacks in diverse parts of the solar system. A detective named Inspector Genette, already investigating Alex’s death, sets out to find and stop whoever is responsible. Genette would be the protagonist if this was a typical novel, but instead Wahram and Swan just happen to be in the right places at the right times to be bystanders while Genette unravels the mystery. But maybe it’s just as well, because the mystery isn’t all that interesting. It’s politically motivated, and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment the politics of the novel don’t make much sense. To patch a few gaps in the mystery narrative, a third viewpoint character, a Terran named Kiran, is introduced some way through the story and none-too-plausibly injected into the world of Venutian organized crime. Kiran is, like Wahram and Swan, almost completely passive, but unfortunately he’s also much less successfully characterized, never developing into anything more than a wide-eyed yokel.

Somewhat out of left field, the mystery turns out to hinge on “qubes”, quantum computers running AIs who can easily pass the Turing Test. Alex’s faction is halfheartedly anti-qube, using them but not trusting them, and meanwhile some other mysterious party has taken to implanting qubes in human-looking bodies. Inspector Genette is convinced that a human-looking qube is a clear and present danger to humanity in a qualitatively different way than one housed in a traditional server, or even the one that Swan on a typically contrarian impulse decided long ago to implant in her own skull. The novel doesn’t seem to consider this fear of an android qube menace a controversial position and seems to expect the reader to accept it immediately. Genette is completely convinced of it, after all, other characters question how to deal with these qubes but not the premise that they must be dealt with, and Genette is after all the only character who displays real intelligence or even agency. Except that it’s nonsense, a perplexing and perhaps even poisonous sort of nonsense. What difference does it make what an AI looks like? There’s a case to be made that a quantum AI might have intellectual capabilities that make it far more dangerous than a mere human, but surely a malicious, super-smart AI is dangerous no matter how it is housed? The Terminator was frightening because it could pass for human, yes, but viewed dispassionately was it actually more frightening than Skynet?

The real subtext of the Terminator, Cylons, and Blade Runner replicants is of course the fear of insidious infiltration by something other than us, something that doesn’t share our values. Science fiction should expose this fear for what is and question it (as Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream… do), not propagate it. That this doesn’t seem to happen in 2312 is particularly strange since Robinson stakes out a strong progressive position on sexuality. Wahram is coded male and Swan is coded female, but it turns out that Wahram is an “androgyn” and Swan is a “gynandromorph”, which basically means they’re a little of each. In their society this is totally unremarkable, and it turns out that due to some longevity benefits nearly everyone in space was altered during gestation to become intersex to some degree. I’m not totally sold on how this is handled; Wahram and Swan can be read as “male” and “female” a little too easily, as if the near-abolition of gender hasn’t had much of an impact. But this is a stylistic choice in service to the idea that gender is socially constructed and not some unshakable biological reality. Well and good, but what are we to make of Genette’s uncriticized fixation on the appearance of quantum artificial intelligences? It is perhaps telling that the novel’s otherwise comprehensive vision of the future features a related lacunae: a nearly complete absence of any sort of virtual reality, despite the presence of a number of characters (first among them the claustrophobic Swan) who would enormously benefit from altering either wholly or in part their perception of reality.

In any case, the reason to read 2312 is definitely not the plot and probably not even the characters, it’s the setting. Robinson’s achievements here are large and impressive in a way that is unfortunately difficult to capture in a review. From its opening scenes on Mercury, the story takes the reader on a grand tour of the solar system, visiting nearly every planet and many asteroids before ending, appropriately enough, near Pluto and Charon. The standout here is the moving city of Terminator that glides along rails, always staying just ahead of the sun because the rails behind it are expanding in the intense heat of the Mercurial dawn, but there are many other fascinating creations, too many to list here.

To better articulate this setting, the novel is written in the style of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, a style known to genre readers mostly from John Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar. Interleaved with chapters of a fairly conventional narrative are “lists” and “extracts” chapters, which pretty much contain what one might expect: lists of information and short, unsourced extracts from non-fiction contemporary with the story. From this description it might sound like a pretentious way to infodump, and, well, to an extent that’s true, but both the lists and extracts are chosen and arranged for literary effect. It’s perhaps not quite as crucial here as in Stand on Zanzibar since Robinson’s world feels less alien than Brunner’s despite its greater chronological distance. This is mainly a function of the far greater stylistic risks Brunner took, inventing dozens of slang terms and immersing the reader without context. Despite the similar structure, 2312 is written in a far less dazzling but much more accessible style.

Although it’s the main reason to read the novel and, indeed, sufficient reason to recommend it to anyone interested in a spacefaring future, the setting isn’t totally convincing. The principal problem is that Robinson dodges the fundamental question facing modern science fiction set in the solar system: why does anyone bother when it’s so expensive? Occasionally there is a halfhearted suggestion that people wanted to get away from the environmentally wrecked and hopelessly balkanized Earth, either to live free of its baggage or to preserve ecological niches in asteroid terraria, but anyone rich enough to contemplate hollowing out an asteroid or colonizing Mars can easily do both of these things on Earth itself and not expose themselves to the tremendous inconvenience and danger of space travel. In particular, the residents of the asteroid terraria are nearly without exception obsessed with ecology, which makes one wonder why they wouldn’t be happier living amid the real thing on Earth. It also seems reasonable to think that a civilization successfully terraforming Venus and Mars ought to be able to reverse a mere hundred years of greenhouse heating on Earth.

The actual settlement of the solar system is all in the past by the year 2312, of course, but without knowing the reason people could afford to go into space, it’s hard to understand how the economy works. Much of Earth’s food is grown in terraria, we learn, while people and raw materials from Earth are taken to space relatively cheaply on space elevators. Tiny micro-habitats near the sun focus light on otherwise energy-starved moons of the outer system, where again various raw materials can be mined. The picture never becomes clear, however. Wahram and Swan float around the solar system and never seem to worry about paying for anything. Perhaps they’re rich (rich in what?), but then it turns out they have to work to earn their passage from planet to planet on asteroids. And the work they do is…menial labor in fields. Now it’s believable, perhaps, that even in 2312 the humans of an overpopulated and impoverished Earth would be cheaper to hire for unskilled manual labor than robots. But in space, where not just a few but hundreds of asteroids have been hollowed out using self-replicating mining robots, why are jetsetting rich people like Swan and Wahram working in fields? There’s a weird utopian aesthetic at work, a hybrid of Jeffersonian gentleman farmers with agricultural communes. Robinson seems to see space as new New World free of the national and ethnic baggage of Earth, but doesn’t actually seem justified by the technological details we’re shown. The old New World was a nice place for poor people to move to, after all, but it didn’t allow a reset of ethnicity or the destruction of capitalism, so why would the new New World be any different?

One might reasonably expect this space-as-frontier setting to involve a lot of Wild West gunfights, but warfare apparently doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic either. This issue is at least explicitly raised, and we are told that space is too dangerous to fight in. This seems like a wild overestimation of human nature. Inspector Genette posits a slightly more plausible theory, saying the terrorist attacks are far more dangerous than they seem because until now people have somehow not realized that violence in space is possible, and once that taboo is broken there will be no way to return to peace. There is some precedent for this in political history: once violence is used successfully to create or prevent political change, a precedent is set that’s extremely difficult to shake. But again it’s difficult to imagine humans living in space for two centuries without having long since rediscovered a capacity for violence. This is not a world like Banks’s Culture where scarcity has been defeated. Energy, material, and labor are all scarce to differing degrees in different places, there is no interplanetary government to monopolize force, and successful first strikes seem far too plausible for mutually assured destruction to hold things in balance.

Nevertheless, apparently no one fights over resources, though no explanation is provided for how they are allocated. Most space habitats participate in something called the Mondragon accord, explicitly named after the Basque Mondragon cooperative but otherwise never explained. Genette works for a sort of interplanetary Interpol which for most of the novel seems to have even less power than our Interpol. Yet toward the end of the novel, Genette finishes the investigation by appropriating the largest spaceship in the solar system from an uninvolved third party, then compensates them by seizing one of Pluto’s smaller moons without so much as invoking eminent domain.

In another novel, some handwaving about economics and politics might be understandable, but much of 2312 is spent musing on how much better life is in space and how terrible things still are on Earth. Earth hasn’t changed all that much from today, so we are clearly meant to read criticism of Earth as criticism of the economics and politics of the present day. That’s fair enough, yet it feels cheap for 2312 to whine about the inequities of our world when it never adequately develops the economic and political alternatives it posits in the rest of the solar system.

I suspect that in the long run its various deficiencies will prevent 2312 from being remembered as anything more than a minor work by a major author, but despite its idiosyncrasies Robinson’s vision of what a settled solar system might look like feels five to ten years ahead of the rest of the genre, so for now it’s required reading for anyone interested in hard science fiction in general and space travel in particular.

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