The year is AD 7000. The human species is extinct - for the fourth time - due to its fragile nature. Krina Alizond-114 is metahuman, descended from the robots that once served humanity. She’s on a journey to the water-world of Shin-Tethys to find her sister Ana. But her trip is interrupted when pirates capture her ship. Their leader, the enigmatic Count Rudi, suspects that there’s more to Krina’s search than meets the eye. He’s correct: Krina and Ana each possess half of the fabled Atlantis Carnet, a lost financial instrument of unbelievable value - capable of bringing down entire civilizations. Krina doesn’t know that Count Rudi suspects her motives, so she accepts his offer to get her to Shin-Tethys in exchange for an introduction to Ana. And what neither of them suspects is that a ruthless body-double assassin has stalked Krina across the galaxy, ready to take the Carnet once it is whole - and leave no witnesses alive to tell the tale…
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Stross' Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe, but further into the future as Saturn's Children. Humans have come and gone multiple times. but their robot creations have carried on, recapitulating human ambitions and drive with regard to exploration, settlement, and establishment of organizational structure throughout the galaxy. Stross explores the financial requirements necessary to support interstellar colonization and development as well as the resulting potential for fraud, corruption, and get-rich-quick schemes, including a variant of the classical Ponzi scheme. The story concerns a lowly bank examiner for a large money center bank who also happens to have a hobby focusing on archaeological accountancy (basically digging up long forgotten financial transaction to collect any leftover booty). Her travels take her on an adventure that is engaging and entertaining as well as thought provoking.
The sci-fi elements are mostly android abstractions with multiple unique and clever implementations that allow robots to survive in strange environments. Stross also explores the impact of longer (centuries) survival times. The various plot twists and turns are largely unexpected with a varied cast of anthropomorphic robots that make up a wonderful cast of characters ensemble.
The narration is very well done with a solid range of characters that correctly captures nuance and subtlety.
Krina Alizond-114, a metahuman, is worried because Ana, one of her sibs, has gone missing. It’s not that Krina cares much about her sisters — they’re all just the spawn (and, anagrammatically, the pawns) of their scary overbearing mother and, besides, metahumans don’t have all that mushy emotional stuff that so frequently hijacked the thought processes of the “Fragile” race of homo sapiens that created them. The problem is that together Ana and Krina hold the key to a vast fortune and, if Ana disappears, Krina will lose the chance to get her hands on it.
Ana lives on a water world named Shin-Tethys and Krina must get there as fast as she can. First she gets a working berth on a spaceship that serves as a chapel for the remnant of the Church of the Fragile who are trying to find new planets to colonize with real human beings. When the chapel gets boarded by bat-like pirates who turn out to be insurance underwriters, Krina continues the journey with them. But the Church has not lost interest in Krina and there’s also an assassin clone chasing her. That means Krina and Ana’s secret must not be a secret any longer. As she puts all the pieces together Krina realizes that she’s about to uncover the biggest scam in the history of the universe — a Ponzi scheme that she didn’t even realize she was connected to.
Charles Stross’ Neptune’s Brood, which stands alone but takes place in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, and which has been nominated for a Hugo Award this year, is perfectly plotted and full of imagination and inventiveness. Everything about Neptune’s Brood is unusual and refreshing— its characters, settings, plot, themes and structure.
I’ve already mentioned Krina and her family — they’re a post-human species that descended from robots that humans made to serve them. The humans went extinct and the robots lived on. For the most part you can think of Krina as a human because she mostly acts, thinks, and talks like one. But she isn’t quite human — she lacks our emotional range, she’s really hard to kill, and she can just be uploaded to a new body if she dies. This makes her feel distant and inaccessible enough that she’s hard to truly feel for or worry about. I think it was this coldness, more than anything else that kept me from loving Neptune’s Brood.
Several of Stross’ settings in Neptune’s Brood are wonderfully bizarre. My favorite is the flying chapel of the Church of the Fragile which encountered a hilarious disaster and is full of animated skeletons, a zombie priestess, and other oddities. Worshipping the “holy double helix,” the Church is desperately trying to re-create the extinct human species. Much humor comes from these scenes. Another part of the story takes place in a beautiful underwater city populated by communist squids and a mermaid. I loved these imaginative touches. The structure of the novel is also creative with chapters alternating between first, second, and third person points of view. There are several pop culture references that, irritatingly, took me right out of Stross’ awesome settings and back into my own boring world (e.g., “Oh, snap” and “The game’s afoot”).
The main theme of Neptune’s Brood is how the world of finance might look in a universe containing multiple inhabited solar systems that participate in the interstellar economy but where there is no Faster Than Light technology (which is most likely how it’s going to be if we ever succeed in getting out of our own system). How can money mean anything for that kind of economy? Stross discusses the problems with liquidity, exchange rates, cash standards, risk management, debt, bubbles, and fraud. Then he creates a banking system that just might work. This is likely to be of great value to those interested in the banking and finance systems of the future. Even though I’m married to an economist and have spent plenty of time listening to discussions of monetary systems, I can’t say that I find these topics to be as fascinating as others might find them, but fortunately, there is plenty of great scenery and exciting action to counterbalance the money talk in this Financepunk story.
I listened to Emily Gray expertly narrate Recorded Books’ version of Neptune’s Brood.