Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review - Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Short review: Krina-114 is a bank historian in a post-human world tracking down the greatest banking fraud in history. To do this she needs to find her sister Ana, but along the way she has to deal with the corrupt clergy of the Church of the Fragile, accountant pirates, and and the paranoid ruler of a floating kingdom. After that, things get really dangerous.

Bank historian
Studies unparalleled fraud
And winds up a fish

Full review: To me, the most amazing thing about Neptune's Brood is that it is interesting. Sure, it is set in the same post-human future as Saturn's Children (although it is not a direct sequel, so not having read the first will not prevent one from enjoying this). Sure, it has killer androids, deranged clergy, paranoid despots, and ruthless space pirates. But the central plot of the story revolves around interstellar banking transactions, a subject that it would seem would be as dry as space dust, but in Stross' hands, this forms the basis for a tense and gripping tale of intrigue, mystery, and danger. Not only that, it is set in a future that is both very alien, and yet familiar enough to make the reader uneasy.

The story follows the travails of Krina Alizond-114, a bank historian who specializes in the history of banking frauds, as she tries to find her sister Ana so they can work together to track down the Atlantis Carbuncle, an item that will unlock vast wealth. As the book opens, Krina has just arrived at Taj Beacon, having beamed in expecting to meet her sister there only to find that Ana has traveled to the nearby water planet of Shin-Tethys without leaving any kind of explanation. This poses something of a problem for Krina, as she had arrived at Taj Beacon without substantial amounts of "fast money", and unwilling to draw the attention that would accompany converting her "slow money" reserve into usable currency. As a result, Krina accepts a working passage under aboard a mobile chapel of the Church of the Fragile under the authority of Deacon Dennett, the temporary leader of the mission.

This delay in Krina's plans allows Stross to discuss the two primary background elements of the novel: The nature of this post-human society, and how interstellar finance is handled in a world in which faster than light travel does not exist. Traveling on the Church of the Fragile - the local representatives of the sect dedicated to preserving and possibly reviving the "fragile" as the androids that populate the universe call humans (due to our easily damaged nature) - reveals just how different this world is from ours. Although Krina wears a human-looking body, this isn't her. In fact, it turns out that the body she wears at the opening of the novel was just created for her on Taj Beacon after she was transmitted from an entirely different star system (apparently as nothing more than a set of code sent on a light beam). One's identity is now stored in a "soul chip" placed inside the head of a body, which is why the high priestess of the Church of the Fragile isn't dead as the result of an on-ship mishap, but is merely incapacitated while Deacon Dennett generates a new body for her.

The other background feature of the story is interstellar banking, which is handled using "slow money", a form of currency that exists almost exclusively to finance interstellar expeditions to found new colonies. This "slow money" is contrasted in the book with "fast money" (which is what we would now normally consider "money") and "medium money" (which covers investments other than building colony ships and funding the needs of new colonies). But slow money is at the root of the interstellar financial system, and at the heart of the story. Because when a new colony is financed, it must go deeply into "slow money" debt, first to pay back the parent colony that sponsored the new one, and then to recruit new colonists to help with the new colony. But the only reasonable path for a colony to get out of slow money debt is to finance the construction of new colonies that will then be financially beholden to it as their parent. In short, slow money is something like a very slow-moving chain letter, and the colonies at the end of the line end up owing a pile of debt they can never hope to repay. The debt-centric nature of this future society even permeates to the personal level, as Krina reveals that people are born (or rather, created) owing a debt to repay their parent for the cost required to incubate and raise them.

One of the interesting unspoken facts about the world that Stross has created is that this "slow money" debt is, almost the sole driving force that for space colonization. In the post-human world where life spans are extremely long, the birth rate is consciously determined, and even if one's body is in a mishap that kills you there is a decent chance you can be brought back, there is no particular demographic reason for humanity to expand to the stars. As trading physical commodities between star systems would be prohibitively expensive, the only transactions between different colonies involve information and not material goods. The only real reason to finance and establish a new colony in another star system is to offload your own debt onto a new venture. This doesn't explain why or how the first extrasolar colony was founded, or how this colony was financed - the system Stross describes requires at least three inhabited star systems to work - but it is the underlying truth of how the system functions at the time the book is set.

It is against this backdrop that Krina's quest to unravel what she suspects to be the largest banking fraud in history is set. In a world in which interstellar banking looms over pretty much everything else, being a bank historian who specializes in studying the history of bank fraud is a relatively interesting subject, and Krina is clearly quite intelligent and understands the financial systems of her society quite well. But she is also an academic, and as a result, she is somewhat naive when it comes to the every day hazards that surround her. This combination of obvious intellect and naivete makes Krina a character that the reader can enjoy following about, but who is not so overly competent that she never makes missteps. And her missteps are often what drive the plot. When she takes passage on the Deacon Dennett's Church of the Fragile ship, Krina is oblivious to the lurking dangers that surround her, which in retrospect seem almost obvious. Krina is oblivious to the danger that pursues her, and even when she is taken in by the piratical "Count" Rudi of the Permanent Crimson Branch Office Five Zero, who is trying to locate Krina's sister Ana as his corporation had rather foolishly underwritten a large insurance policy on Ana, Krina is still more or less clueless concerning the direction from which the hazards to her life and freedom are coming from.

But to a certain extent Krina's story, as filled with intrigue, double-crosses, and misadventures as it is, is only the first layer of what makes Neptune's Brood interesting. When Krina reaches the water planet Shin-Tethys and lands in Nova Ploetsk in the Kingdom of Argos, she finds a nation ruled by the despotic and paranoid Queen Medea. But in a world in which one can make "children" who are little more than copies of oneself, a paranoid ruler can populate her bureaucracy with what amounts to one's own clones, ensuring their loyalty. And Queen Medea has done so, creating a self-reinforcing aura of paranoia in her government. But Medea isn't the only one - Krina's "mother" Sondra has herself created a collection of clones and almost clones to staff her bank, including the line that Krina comes from. Although not fully explored in the book, the idea of a world in which those with power can create clones and near clones of themselves to act as their own foot soldiers is both unsettling and, I would venture, a topic that would make for an interesting book.

This is not to say that the book is so filled with interesting world background that it lacks an equally interesting story. After surviving the intrigues of the Church of the Fragile, an assassination attempt by her own clone, and a kidnapping by a band of accountant-privateers, Krina finds herself pressed into service by the Nova Ploetsk police to assist their investigation into Ana's disappearance and presumed murder. In short order, Krina is abducted again, and this time her entire body is resculpted and she is dropped into the depths below the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Argos - because Shin-Tethys is a water planet, not only do the borders of nations have length and breadth, they also have depth, and the realm below Shin-Tethys is ruled by a communist collective made up of people who have not only adapted their bodies to allow them to live at crushing depths, but altered their minds so that they can function as part of a collective society. The sort of additive world-building in which mind-altered squid-people are integrated into the plot, is what makes this story so intricate and fascinating.

In the end, Krina exposes the largest banking swindle in history, which turns out to have its source a little too close to home to be comfortable. Because of the enormous financial stakes involved, the various players try to claim the prize to the best of their abilities, which range from comical ineptitude to unprecedented violence. In the end, the story wraps up in a satisfying manner with an interesting twist that ties off most of the loose ends. The primary weakness of the story is that Krina somewhat stumbles through many parts of the story as a result of nothing but blind luck, and only survives at several points because those around her think that she is more valuable alive than dead. This is mitigated by the fact that Krina is a likable character, and is clearly an expert in her own field despite lacking in "street smarts". With an oddly fascinating plot and a vividly imagined albeit somewhat disturbing future Neptune's Brood is an enjoyable and engaging book that is sure to entertain.

Previous book in the series: Saturn's Children

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