Baroque and Gonzo

UNLIKE OTHER FUNDAMENTAL elements of our lives — food, sex, and death, or even gravity — money has mostly escaped speculative examination in science fiction. Relatively few alternatives to money as a system of exchange have been proposed. Generally, it’s assumed that in the future capitalism will prosper and money will continue to make the worlds go around. And while lust for cold hard cash kick-starts the plots of many crime novels and most noir films, protagonists in SF novels aren’t much interested in it: wealth is usually a by-product of their adventures, not their goal. So kudos to Charles Stross for writing a science-fiction novel in which a vast sum of money is the McGuffin, and speculations about interstellar economics are at the core of its idea-driven narrative.

Although Neptune’s Brood shares the same robot-dominated future history as Saturn’s Children, its standalone story is set thousands of years later. Baseline humans, otherwise known as “meat sacks” or the Fragile, are secondary citizens in a burgeoning network of interstellar colonies created by metahuman descendants of robots — congeries of cellular mechanocytes that embody machine intelligence in (mostly) human form. Krina Alizon-114 is one such metahuman, a scholar of the history of accountancy who is making a leisurely sabbatical tour of various stellar systems. She has just arrived at the transit station of Dojima System when she learns that one of her sisters, Ana, has gone missing on the system’s water world. As she sets out to find her sister, Ana is pursued in turn by an assassin dispatched by her mother, Sondra. For Krina is not quite what she seems: like her other sisters, she’s actually a modified clone of Sondra, and she and Ana are part of a small cabal who have uncovered the vast and cruel fraud that not only created Sondra’s fortune but could also destroy the foundations of interstellar commerce. Ana has found one half of the financial instrument, the Atlantis Carnet, that will unlock part of the proceeds of that fraud; Krina carries the other half, stolen from Sondra’s bank.

The interstellar civilization of Stross’s deep future is driven by a vicious, debt-based hypercapitalism. Children must work as indentured slaves to their parents until they have paid off the costs of their instantiation. The program of interstellar colonization runs on “an engine of debt that can only be repaid by the formation of new interstellar colonies, passing the liability ever onward into the deep future,” using a medium of exchange known as slow money. Fast money is cash; medium money consists of durables — property, infrastructure — bought with cash. Slow money is a kind of theft-proof bit coinage in which every exchange between two parties must be cryptographically verified by a third, and since all three are located in different stellar systems, and communications are limited by the speed of light, it takes years to negotiate every transaction. Like all the best SF writers, Stross is not content with inventing new worlds; his stories spin out of catastrophic stress-tests of their fundamental principles. Thus, Sondra and others perpetrated a fraud that exploited a flaw in the system that underpins the funding of interstellar colonies; Krina and her co-conspirators are chasing down a share of the vast sum of slow money liberated by the crime.

Framed as a series of notes or letters written by Krina to her co-conspirators, the narrative alternates between the search for Ana and the Atlantis Carnet, and the back story of the fraud. Along the way Krina encounters a spaceship that’s a holy ossuary maintained by skeletal servitors and an oddball human crew, a gang of piratical insurance underwriters, an underwater kingdom, empathic communist squid who mine natural, abyssal fission reactors, and much more. It’s smart, dense, chewy stuff, with a relish for baroque amalgamations of antique political structures and gothic tech reminiscent of Bruce Sterling’s space operas, and garnished with a rat-a-tat stream of gonzo jokes. Krina’s cool skepticism reminded me of Mattie Ross in True Grit; and as in True Grit a great deal of the narrative’s vigor is sparked by clashes between her severe moral code and the actual, imperfect world. Although she isn’t a deliberately unreliable narrator, Krina isn’t entirely candid about her motives and doesn’t always understand the motives of those around her, and her notes about the forensic dissection of her mother’s fraud are salted with teasing clues and cliff-hanging interruptions. It’s a clever way of smuggling in chunks of world-building, and makes the intricacies of interstellar finance not only comprehensible but also, by directly linking them to Krina’s quest, urgent.

Some essential scenes in which Krina isn’t present are rather jarringly crow-barred into the epistolary first-person narrative, and Stross splurges the emotional and dramatic credit accrued in the narrative in a cursory climatic confrontation between Krina and her mother. But the denouement is both clever and world-changing, and as a novel of ideas — and ideas that are not simply critiques of previous SF novels (always a trap in the genre), but which engage with and extrapolate from the happening world, with its Ponzi schemes and corrupt financial systems and abyssal oceans of debt — Neptune’s Brood is both intensely intelligent and wonderfully timely.