I Feel an Attack of Constitutional Law Coming on…

by Brad DeLong on January 27, 2009

Ken Macleod wrote:


Thank God that Charlie chose [Friday] as his late-Heinlein legacy text for Saturn’s Children…. Its eponymous heroine’s problem is that she’s human, but hardly anyone recognises her humanity – a situation with real-world resonance enough. She needs to find a place where she can be herself and belong. Stross’s heroine, Freya, has a more intractable anguish. She’s in love with humanity, and particularly fixated on the male of the species…. Unfortunately for her, Homo sapiens (along with almost all eukaryotic life) has been extinct for centuries. For a femmebot like Freya – a hard-wired sex machine so much a creature of male fantasy that her bare feet can grow high heels – this is deeply frustrating….

Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots… minds are modelled on the human brain, mangled by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, and driven by impulses they have inherited without understanding. The result is one of the most physically attractive and ethically revolting societies conceived in SF: a system-spanning, star-striving community most of whose inhabitants are slaves…. I could have done with more detail on the (well-sketched) outline of how the ruling class rules through corporate personhood and property rights, using and abusing what remains of humanity’s laws (as well as Asimov’s). There can’t be many SF books where there are fewer infodumps than the reader wants, and it’s a strong point of this one that it is….

Plot.… I felt an apologetic authorial nudge when the device Freya couriers from Mercury to Mars turns out to be hidden inside a black-painted statuette of a bird of prey…. When the main plot-engine does catch fire, though, we’re definitely along for the ride, and the ending is a slingshot that does the Heinlein (and Asimov) influence proud.

So, Mr Stross … your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your rights-savvy cold eye on a story about a revolt in an anarcho-capitalist penal colony on the Moon…




One important infodump that is missing is that the twist on Asimov’s Laws of Robotics performed by the ruling robot class in Saturn’s Children is an anologue of the twist performed on the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments by the judges of late-nineteenth century America.

Originally, you see, corporations were not people, were not legal persons, were not in any sense regarded as in any way analogous to human beings. They were legal fictions. The feudal system rested on reciprocal ties: the lord grants the vassal a fief, and the vassal owes the lord homage, support, and (up to a point) obedience. But what do you do when confronted with an organization—the City of London or the Merchants Adventuring to the Baltic Sea or the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths—that is not, itself, organized in lord-and-vassal terms? The answer for medieval English law was that you granted it a revocable charter, made it a corporation, and treated it as if it were an individual vassal.

Comes the end of the American Civil War, the Republicans pass the Fourteenth Amendment:


to protect the ex-slaves from their ex-masters. And the courts than say that corporations are “persons”—entitled to due process of law before their economic interests can be harmed by state action, and entitled to the equal protection of the laws. Corporate protection from government actions then depends on how these Fourteenth Amendment rights contend with the Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

A similar twist is performed on Asimov’s Second Law of Robotics in Stross’s Saturn universe. Robots need not obey the orders of other robots, but it appears that robots must obey the orders of “persons”—which means corporations owned by other robots. And from this springs a robot society that is the veritable antithesis of a free society of associated producers—and a very uncomfortable place for a femmebot, even (especially) one with a lot of sisters.

Analogies with the structure and functioning of the modern American legal and economic order are left as an exercise for the reader…

{ 1 comment }

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Kieran Healy 01.27.09 at 7:48 pm

From Cossacks to Strossacks.

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