Saturday, August 03, 2013

Review: Neptune's Brood

Neptune's Brood is set in the same world as Saturn's Children, but is not a direct sequel in style, tone, or humor. This is a feature, since Saturn's Children, as much as I enjoyed it, was a Heinlein Pastische, and you don't need too many of those.

Science Fiction is often called the literature of ideas because it's frequently lacking in other areas like character, plot, and pacing. As a hard science fiction writer, Stross demonstrates this in this book, which frequently reads more like a treatise in interstellar commerce than a novel. There are long expositions abound in which the reader is lectured to (shades of Asimov) about Fast Money (cash), Medium Money (investments), and Slow Money (interstellar bitcoinage), and how Spanish Prisoner and other fraud schemes would occur in the absence of FTL travel and only lightspeed communications.

Now, all this works only because the characters are all post-human, including the narrator/protagonist (Krina), a historian/accountant who specializes in audits and has a sideline/interest in investigating slow money fraud. As a result, she can "beam" to various locations and travel via starship to places without a beacon. The plot revolves around Krina's visit to her sister Ana. When Ana disappears before she gets there, Krina investigates and gets dropped into a web of intrigue when everyone she talks to, works for, or is arrested by wants a piece of whatever Ana seems to have found before she disappeared.

Like you would expect in a science fiction novel where all the fun happens in the exposition, Krina isn't much of an active entity in the story. She gets dragged and dropped by other forces outside her control pretty much throughout the novel, and never really initiates anything herself. This allows her to exposit on topics that Stross considers important for the reader to know.

The ending, much like with Saturn's Children, comes together in a hurry after the great reveal (which isn't terribly exciting), and leaves the reader with most of the loose ends tied up and a deeper understanding of how Charles Stross feels the entire financial system is. There are lots of snide remarks about investment banking, bankers, accountants, and bank branches (one of them is a pirate outfit), but in the end, the reader isn't likely to gain any more expertise in economics as a result of reading this book than he already had. (On the other hand, Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman liked the book, but of course he would)

Now it sounds like I didn't enjoy this book, but I did. It's just that the audience for this book is likely to be incredibly narrow (geeks who enjoy Economics). To that audience, I'd highly recommend this novel. It explores many ideas that few other science fiction novels do. For anyone else, I'm afraid you're going to have to enjoy lectures or the novel just won't work.

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