… that Charlie chose as his late-Heinlein  legacy text  for Saturn’s Children – and not, say, Time Enough for Love. Friday, for all its flaws, is a good act to follow. 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, her One True Love. 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.
After the living, life goes on. Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots, who have gone loyally on to create their dead creators’ Golden Age SF dream of the Solar System. Their 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.
Given this set-up, it’s surprising how much fun there is to be had. Freya may pine for her One True Love, but she’ll take sex where she can get it – and in an environment where almost any object may be conscious and randy, this results in a great deal of consensual polymorphous perversity. She is screwed by a space shuttle (within which she is securely strapped). She is fucked by a hotel (which is called Paris, though I waited in vain for the matching hotel-name shoe to drop). There are more allusions to kink than you can shake a rod at, some of which (I suspect) whizzed right past my head. There’s a scene where the set-up of endless porn movies segues into the breathy language of romantic novels. There’s an even funnier scene where a femmebot meets a robot gigolo.
Intellectually, too, it’s fun. The long-running argument between Evolution and Intelligent Design provides something of a running gag. (The Darwinists have ancient texts from the Creators, the ID advocates have evidence: blueprints, specs, purchase orders … ) The nitty-gritty of the robot body is original and believable. 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 … well, it wasn’t a strong point in Friday. It’s stronger here, and complex, but 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 real issue at stake becomes clear, half the novel has passed in the rataplan of Freya’s bouncing around half the planets in the System. 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.
1. Charles Stross, months and months ago: ‘Everyone wants to write a Heinlein juvenile! But it’s late Heinlein that got on the best-seller lists! Yes, I know they’re fat! Inside every late-Heinlein there’s a good SF novel screaming to get out!’ Or words to that effect.
2. A term coined by Farah Mendlesohn, by analogy with ‘legacy code’ in programming.