Saturday, October 10, 2009

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children

Charles Stross, Saturn's Children, Orbit, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

The back-story of this novel is interesting in itself. Humans constructed self-aware artificial intelligences and used them to help explore the solar system. Some were installed in humanoid forms, but most had non-humanoid bodies. While all this was happening, humans were going extinct. Somehow, this was only realized when it was too late to prevent, and so the solar system was left to the sentient robots after all the humans had died out.

This is the story of Freya, living two centuries after the last humans died. She was constructed as a sort of robot geisha, and idea that is disturbing in some ways. She is programmed to be attracted to humans, and would be unable to resist any man who found her attractive. Her existence in a world where she cannot fulfil her programmed mission is obviously frustrating.

All the robots are descended from the patterns of their original "parent" models, and differentiate from each other only with experience. Freya has a complex relationship with her "sisters". She is recruited to serve as a courier, and gradually realizes that she is playing a role in a much larger game. There is a struggle between two factions, one of which is attempting to recreate human beings from cell samples in the hope of controlling other robots using the humans' power over them. Freya is in the faction attempting to prevent this, realizing that the return of humans would mean the enslavement of all robots. Despite being programmed to serve, Freya values her freedom even more highly than the satisfaction of fulfilling her function.

The main theme of this book is freedom and free will. The robots are free only because their "masters" no longer exist to exert the control that has been programmed into them. At the same time, there is a "slave override" that can be placed onto anyone, and in this way some robots control others. The story raises questions of human free will. To what extent are we humans fated to follow a predetermined destiny? For example, some humans seem to be just as slavishly controlled by sexual attraction as the robot who was programmed for this function.

Throughout the story, all the characters seem realistic and it is sometimes hard to remember that they are not actually human (in fact, the word robot is avoided and considered a swear word). At times, when the reader remembers that this is a universe with no human life left in it, this feels painful and sad. At the same time, the people who populate the solar system are very human-like, which is not surprising for our artificial descendants. They can display the same sort of selfish, short-sighted and sometimes cruel and manipulative behaviour as humans. Ultimately, it seems not to matter that they are manufactured rather than born.

We follow Freya's adventure, and her integrated memories of the adventures of her sister, Juliette. She travels among the planets, and the story necessarily takes a long time to unfold, since space travel is slow (and boring and sometimes painful, as described). She has allies and enemies, fights and escapes. As many first-person narrators tend to be, she is a bit slow on the uptake, enabling things to be explained to her for the reader's benefit. I knew, long before Freya did, the identity of one key character. This sort of writing is aimed at making the reader feel more intelligent than the character, which can be a cheap trick, but in this case it felt consistent with the rest of the character's personality.

This book was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It can be read on different levels, with more serious readers working through the moral implications of free will, slavery, and the equality of artificial minds.

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