Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Readings — Saturn's Children

Saturn’s Children
by Charles Stross

Although not actually formulaic, this book caused me an odd sense of deja vu. Or perhaps meme-temps vu; I could see why and what was happening in each part of the book as I read it, but felt curiously untouched even when abstractly I found myself appreciating the thematic concepts or plot structure. The main character, Freya, is a female robot in a future where humans are extinct and humaniform androids run the solar system; designed for human use, the robots have built their own society in our absence. Freya was originally designed as a sex toy. So were her sisters, derivatives from the same design; some of them, though, upgraded to become secret agents. When Freya finds herself in a threatening situation at the start of the book, she makes a series of choices leading her along the same path, ultimately finding a threat to the whole solar system.

The book’s aware of the gender issues it’s playing with. One of Freya’s first missions is to carry a secret cargo from one planet to another; said cargo is an egg, and the best way for her to transport it is inside her, in a hollow where a human woman would have a womb. It’s a clever notion, but somehow unconvincing; you feel that Stross doesn’t hit the mark he’s aiming for, that his ideas about gender and ideas of life and so on don’t reach the pitch of sophistication he needed in order to make them work (and the occasional Shakespearean reference doesn’t really help).

That absence of maturity is critical: lacking profundity, the gender theme becomes not merely ineffective, but actively troubling. Freya travels by spaceship early on, for example, which buffers her against the rigours of the journey in a very invasive way. Stross is consciously trying to use a quasi-rape scene; but I found his manipulation of this material to lack a real human connection, and thus to be unconvincing — troubling, as I said, in that it took me out of the story, and said very little.

There are a lot of nifty ideas in the book, a lot of imagination, and some clever sense-of-wonder-evoking uses of science. Stross plays about with sf adventure plots easily; but, again, to make the book work on the levels he seems to want it to requires a level of sophistication that just isn’t there. I’d say, for example, that in the use of language the book falls down — the writing’s not bad, but not consistently interesting. I’d also say that there’s a sense that his robots act too much like the humans who built them; their society seems entirely too human.

That’s not to say that Stross hasn’t thought about the robot society. In fact, one of the more engaging aspects of the book is its satire of corporatism. But, as with its take on gender, that satire isn’t sharp enough to really stand out. And the little details of how a society would function on its day-to-day levels given the ability of robots to swap out consciousness, to have bodies not even remotely close to human, is ultimately lacking.

Conversely, his gendered robots are oddly unconvincing in their sexuality. The book is full of weirdly adolescent sentences like: “Jeeves has a small pot-belly, and below that . . . hmm.” This ends a paragraph, and the next goes on to talk about something else entirely; the ‘hmm’ hangs there, a coyness that falls with a clunk. If Stross wanted to bring sex in as a major theme, I can’t help but think being prepared to write about it explicitly would have been an asset. But the problems are really deeper than that. It’s impossible to really work out how the robots are reacting in terms of their sexual emotions. Consistently through the book, one has the feeling that the hardware is in place to mimic human functionality, but the software still has a few bugs in it. The problem is that it’s not clear at all that this is deliberate. It reads too much like a traditional sf flaw — the subordination of human character to big ideas.

Robots are programmed to feel sexual desire, are manipulated by sex and rape; but these things start to seem self-contradictory or under-thought: how does rape affect a being programmed to feel sexual desire? And how does one make the question relevant to human experience? And how is it that robots can be so reliably shaped in certain ways by these things, when humans tend to exhibit a range of responses?

Further, while sex is a major element in the make-up of the robots, gender seems curiously irrelevant. On the one hand, that’s logical; if you have robots built in the shape of a hotel, for example (or, if you prefer, an AI that inhabits a hotel-shaped shell), then the physical differentiation of male and female bodies is essentially insignificant. But then, when that hotel self-identifies as male, the issue of gender re-enters the picture. In theory. In practice, there’s no discussion of the meaning of robot gender — no sexism, no societal roles, no transsexuality, no investigation of what gender does to identity.

So, while Stross has big thematic ideas based on sexuality, identity, and control, the application of them in the story comes off as the application of sf tropes, starting with the sexbot protagonist and moving on up to a plan to conquer the solar system. The book tries to use its sf conceits to explore themes of sex and power, but doesn’t manage the depth it would need to really do something new. And, in the end, the android nature of its protagonist, a key part of its attempt at building a metaphor, causes the enterprise to collapse. You can imagine Saturn’s Children being a good book, if you try. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t quite pull it off.

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