written by David Steffen
This is the first year that I’ve actually managed to read all of the nominees in the Hugo novel category, at least a portion of each. Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood is the last of the batch, and I only got my hands on it mid-July when I borrowed it from a friend–the publishers decided not to put it in the Hugo packet, and neither Stross nor Penguin were interested in providing a review copy so I had been intending to just skip the book until the opportunity to borrow it came up. I haven’t finished reading the whole book yet. I’m at about page 150 of 340. But the Hugo deadline is tomorrow and this is the last posting slot I have before the deadline, so if I want to share my review before the deadline it’s got to be a partial. You can consider this part 1 of the review; I’ll write up the rest when I’ve finished the book.
Neptune’s Brood takes place in the universe of Stross’s book Saturn’s Children, but can easily be read as a standalone. I’ve not read Saturn’s Children, but from what I gather, Neptune’s Brood is not a sequel and the time lapsed between the two is so long that there aren’t any narrative lines from one to the other in any case. If you like one, I’d guess you’d like the other, but they can be enjoyed independently.
In the universe of Neptune’s Brood, human life as we would recognize it (known in that time and place as “Fragile”) has gone extinct more than once, only to be revived. That kind of body is just generally not suitable for the rigors of space travel, the radiation and longevity problems inherent in the medium. A person’s mind is backed up on soul chips, electronic wafers that contain the essence of their mind. Without a brain a soul chip is just an inert data card, but any body is eminently replaceable. A new body can be grown for a soul chip, and the soul-chip will then decompress the mind it stores into the body. Humanity as it exists is spread across a large number of interstellar colonies. Colonization is far from easy; it is both extremely expensive and prone to failure, and also a very very slow process. Once a colony has been established, a communications beacon can be established and can import the minds of colonists that can be printed on soul chips and grown new bodies, so it is only the first colonists who have to travel by starship. Stross has clearly put a lot of thought and planning into the economy and technology that supports the spread of humanity through the stars. The explanations of them are very interesting, and I expect they would be even more so to someone whose academic focused centered around economics or space travel. And in particular, the problem of how to deal with interstellar economics without dodging around the problem of communications limited by lightspeed. There are no ansibles or wormholes or anything like that to work around the problems. It deals with them with the limitations as we understand them now. From my point of view, at least, it all seems very plausible.
Krina Alizond-114 is a historian of accountancy practices on a lengthy academic pilgrimage who learns that her sister Ana has disappeared from where she had been living on the water-world of Shin-Tethys, so Krina sets out to Shin-Tethys to find her. Eager to book the fastest passage possible on short notice, she takes a job doing unskilled labor for a Church of the Fragile. The Church is literally built in the shape of a church building as it would exist on a planetary surface, an ungainly and unfunctional shape for a starcraft to be sure. On the previous journey, a deadly accident killed several members of the crew, and several more deserted upon landing, so the Deacon is looking for help to keep the ship functional until new bodies can be grown for the dead crew members. Krina can tell early on that something fishy is going on with the crew, but soon she has to deal with the inhuman assassin stowaway intent on killing her, as well as on the insurance-underwriting pirates that capture the Church vessel and demand that Krina tell them how to find Ana so that the pirates don’t bankrupt themselves paying for Ana’s life insurance policy.
The worldbuilding of Neptune’s brood is dense. There’s a lot of meat there. Interesting stuff, and he’s taken it all into account with the history and plotting in the book. But it does take some heavy chewing to get through it all. I think that this is a large part of why I didn’t feel that the plot had much tension before about page 70. Up until that point I was considering whether I wanted to keep reading, and I could’ve gone either way, but was interested in the worldbuilding as it was rolling out so decided to keep going. I’m glad that I did because at about page 70 all the tension hits from about three directions at once and is still keeping me interested at page 140. So, if you’re like me and you really want some action, some plot to keep you going, just stick through the beginning stretch and there’s plenty of action after that to get you going. Just stick with it. It’s worth it.
Beyond that, I haven’t made it far enough in the book to say I’d recommend it for sure, but between the very interesting and complex worldbuilding and the action and plot that are now in full swing, I’m sure that enough of my interest has been captured that I will read to the end of the book. I think the odds are pretty good I’ll recommend the book as a whole–it’s a rare book that loses me once I’m halfway through, mostly just if the ending is so terrible that it ruins what came before it in retrospect. Once I finish the book (probably in a few weeks), I’ll report back on what I thought of the rest of it.