Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

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

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Family Trade by Charles Stross

June 7, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Note: Family Trade is actually part one of a two book series (i.e. it was really one big novel but the publisher split it into two). This review is for both. Not that there aren’t any spoilers for either, but I just want to make clear if you get one you will have to get the other to actually finish the story. There is another sequel, Clan Corporate, and my impression (haven’t read it) is that this is part one of a similar duology.

Stross has acquired a reputation as a white-hot SF futurist author. I can see why, though personally he has yet to really impress me. To me he’s sort of like a poor man’s Neal Stephenson in that he brings a lot of cool ideas to the table, but unlike Stephenson doesn’t make you laugh out loud and fails to really have any meaningful character work. On the plus side, he actually writes decent endings to his books and hasn’t entered the business of disguising history textbooks as historical fiction. The Family Trade series is billed as his entry into fantasy, but don’t be fooled. This may have a magic item, but otherwise there’s no magic, and in any case the “outlook” of the story is a forward-looking, future seen as superior, science fictional view. There are also some facile comparisons to Zelazny, but while I admit Stross clearly has read the Amber books, ultimately this is nothing like Amber. No, here Stross is evoking a variation of the scientist-as-hero theme from the classic Asimov/Clarke days that is so rarely seen now, although in fact it is economics, not hard science, in this case. Many sections are reminiscent of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court, showing the modern and progressive protagonist running circles around those who are comparitively primitives.

In between all this we have an action story involving guns, mines, swords, and a conspiracy. To Stross’ credit, the fact his protagonist is (like the author) an IT industry journalist and not a cigar chomping action hero only occasionally leads to some incredulous moments. No, the action mostly works. Unfortunately, in the second book Stross can’t keep all the balls in the air at once and the plot comes undone. The climax is both predictable and unsatisfying. The first book (i.e. the first half of the story) is pretty strong but with the plot coming apart, the characters are too two-dimensional for there to be anything compelling. As usual Stross does fun things with his concept, but a really satisfying story still eludes him. Recommended for those who like science fiction, economics, and don’t mind the fact what’s wrapped around it all is a little too fluffy.

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

July 3, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy or science fiction so literary that in a more just universe it would be stocked with mainstream books in the store. After this, it is a somewhat refreshing change to read some nice, hard, science fiction. It would be a disservice to Stross’ novel to say it is wholly without literary pretensions, for Singularity Sky does aspire toward the same sort of respect that Neal Stephenson garners in some circles for his prose. Basically, however, it is an update of the space opera to modern science fiction tropes. In particular, as the title implies, it looks at Vingean singularity. If the phrase “Vingean singularity” means nothing to you, it might be better to give this novel a pass, because it makes only a limited effort to explain it. Likewise, it seems to expect a basic knowledge of quantum entanglement and some other bleeding edge futurist concepts. Ultimately, Singularity Sky has few new ideas, but it represents a consolidation of many far flung ideas into one story.

As such, it is a brave effort, and perhaps doomed by its own aspirations. There are three problems with the novel. First, it has a boilerplate space opera plot and off-the-shelf characters that will do little to interest a reader well-read enough to not be lost in its futurist assumptions. Second, and this is a problem with most far-future stories, while Stross does an admirable job incorporating those concepts he is highlighting, the rest of his future feels a little…parochial. It is a bit of a contradiction to write a novel about the transformative effects of high technology but have characters whose attitudes, social mores, and (minus the gadgets) very way of life would not be at all out of place in, say, New York City in 2003. Yes, I know true extrapolation is a lot easier said than done, and I know if the characters are too removed from the present the reader is alienated. Still, it caused his future to ring false in my ears. A post scarcity economy where people work 9 to 5 jobs because they need money? A person who is described as being effusive “face to face” but terse in e-mail? And, sorry Charles, I know you are British, but while I can accept one guy in 2250 who has heard of Yorkshire, I just can’t believe he would have any right to expect that someone else from Earth would have as well. The third problem is related and by far the worst. As a means of limiting the culture shock experienced by the reader, Stross sets the story in a pre-Singularity colony that has an enforced technological stasis. This is a tried and true technique familiar to, say, readers of Banks’ Culture novels among many others. That the civilization is this lame straw man dystopia (secret police, misogynist, etc.) is disappointing, but salvageable. What wrecks the book and comes close to knocking down to two stars for me is the infuriatingly smug attitude the narrative takes toward the whole business. The two main characters walk around wrapped in warm blankets of superiority, for they are from an enlightened libertarian pseudo-anarchy. Naturally, just as the reader is expected to have a basic familiarity with the technological singularity, the reader is also expected to accept the (a) feasibility and (b) superiority of this society without defense. Meanwhile, for a book with remarkably little exposition devoted to its science fiction trappings, pages upon pages are spent arguing with the poor, deluded souls who have been brainwashed into believing the idiocy of their straw man tyrrany. These arguments don’t even go anywhere, because Stross is too afraid to make any of them sympathetic enough even to be convinced of their errors. I can only assume the society would only be dissected in such boring detail if Stross felt it was relevant to current day politics, but as I said, it is a straw man. Perhaps this is another case of assumed conceptual synchronicity between author and reader: yes, of course our current governments are sliding down that slippery slope to imperialism.

In the end I can give the book three stars mainly because of the skill Stross exhibits in weaving modern SF tropes together into a single universe and the occasional humorous moments. This was his first novel to be published by a major publisher, and he’s definitely a promising author. Hopefully experience will give him the subtlety to produce more satisfying novels in the future.

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