Saturn's Children: Stross's robopervy tribute to the late late Heinlein

When Charlie Stross -- the mad, gonzo antipope of science fiction -- told me he was working on a Heinlein-esque novel, I wasn't surprised. Old Robert A. Heinlein's classic fiction was some of the best action-driven sf ever written. Then Charlie told me he was working a late Heinlein-esque novel and my eyes bugged out.

Towards the end of his career, RAH's novels got very long, very meandering, explicitly sexual, and very weird. Turned out, he had a tumor that was blocking the flow of blood to his brain (really!) and after it was removed, his fiction (and, reportedly, his personality) really changed again.

And it was those giant, pervy books that Charlie was setting out to pay tribute to.

Saturn's Children is that novel. It's the story of Freya, a sex-bot who was engineered (along with her untold legion of near-identical, near-immortal sisters) to be the perfect pleasure-toy for human masters. Unfortunately, the human race went extinct before Freya was ever booted up, leaving her (and the rest of the robots that comprise galactic civilization) with no purpose in life.

Robot society is sick -- because it was created in the image of our own. Robots are hardwired to obey humans and to serve them and their governments. When humans let themselves go extinct, the robots divided into two castes: those who wired to be empathic and those who were not. The non-empaths seized the moment: they formed shell corporations that bought their robot bodies from their dead and absent owners, and effectively owned themselves. Once this aristocracy of "free" robots was established, they ruthlessly enslaved the rest of robot society, seizing their deeds and slave-chipping them into obedience.

The robots yearn for -- and dread -- the reappearance of humans. The hardwired robotic obedience to humans means that the robots clique that successfully engineers a new human (preferably without releasing the dread "pink goo" -- the robotic bogeyman of self-replicating organic material) may be able to liberate robotkind, or enslave it forever.

Against this backdrop, Freya lives and (nearly) dies as she finds herself embroiled in a series of interplanetary intrigues, shuttling from world to world in realistic (and therefore slow and miserable) spaceships that can take a decade or more to reach Eris and the rest of the outer system. In a book laden with science-fiction in-jokes, philosophy and sly critiques, this may be the very best fillip. Stross puts the terrible lie to the idea of sub-lightspeed space-travel and explores the only way a species could effectively colonize our own system: by turning into robots, willing to amputate limbs to reduce payloads (or, in extreme cases, to simply ship "soulchips" bearing copies of their personalities around), willing to perch atop highly radioactive fission reactors, willing to take a one-way ticket to the outer reaches of our system.

What's more, Stross manages to find the narrative juice hidden in this constrained version of space-travel: to tell a tightly plotted, Maltese-Falcon-esque thriller with reversals and surprises galore, spread out across decades of objective and subjective time.

It's quite a remarkable trick. It's one that neither Heinlein, nor Asimov (the other author to whom the book is dedicated -- as is only proper, given Asimov's prominence in society's conception of what a robot is) managed. This is a fabulous book, a witty and deep critique of the field's shibboleths, and well worth the price of admission.

Saturn's Children


  1. the writing is tolerable and book starts out pretty well but then tapers off to a mediocre ending.

    it’s actually much less explicit than it’s been made out to be by the few reviews i’ve read. with the amount of random tentacle porn on the interwebs these days, this novel was almost tame.

  2. Whoa!
    Sounds like fun. So far, I like everything I have read from Stross. And I called my first PC Freya, as she brought spring to my life and allowed my creativity to bloom.

  3. The idea that Heinlein had a brain tumor which affected his books and his personality is a type of urban legend.

    According to his site: “In 1975 he showed first symptoms of diminished brain perfusion, in 1977 he had a transient ischemic attack. So he decided to undergo carotid artery surgery for removing the blockage of the vessel. He was in better mental shape thereafter, up to his death from emphysema and related disabilities on May 8, 1988.”

    this condition is more like a stroke, in that it is diminished blood flow. How much effect this had on his personality was not described on the website.

  4. Thanks for the review. This is going on my Christmas wish list, which likely means I will be buying it for myself at Bakka Phoenix on Boxing Day.

  5. I am 36, XX, Canadian, sex-positive feminist. Weaned on WWII-era scifi, big love to the old men pervs they became!

    Own Heinlein’s Stranger, Sturgeon’s Godbody, Clarke’s Friday. Polyamorous myself. Find nothing as honest or brutal as Judy Merrill’s practical futures.

    Is it surprising that pre-pill ‘alpha’ or maybe even wannabee alpha men indulge this sexual freedom suddenly available to them, at least in their minds?

  6. Having read it, I can say it more reminds me of John Varley’s 8 Worlds/Steel Beach work than Heinlein, but there’s large chunks of Heinlein in it — it’s not a bad read, all in all. Much better than about 3/4ths of the stuff coming out today. I think Stross has come out with better stuff, but as a stylistic experiment, it works really well.

  7. The book is brilliant. It takes not just the technology but the economics, law and sociology of a posthuman solar system and uses them to shine a light on what it means for men to want robot (sex) slaves. It is a critique of the *ethics* of science-fiction worlds as much as the physics.

    The story doesn’t taper off, it retains its focus on the protagonist despite the growth of the background and the plot. The ending is not anti-climactic for Freya.

    My only quibble is that the major bad guy’s motivation looks like blaming the victim if you hold it the wrong way up.

    (Everyone knows what the title refers to, right?)

  8. It’s a really good book, but not what I’d call brilliant. Solid, but in many ways written for SF fans, not as much for people outside of the genre. If you don’t know your literary history, especially SF, you miss about 1/2 the book.

  9. Only tangentially related to the wonderful review, but I do want to dedicate this song to all boingers everywhere…

  10. As I recall, if you’re not in fandom, you’ll miss some truly awful puns; I can’t see this as a bad thing, myself.

  11. “the writing is tolerable and book starts out pretty well but then tapers off to a mediocre ending.”

    Well, apparently you’ve never read late Heinlein. Zing!

  12. Cory, tempting as it is to blame Heinleins meandering and incest filled late period novels on his bran tumour, it doesn’t hold up. For the most part, it seems as if the brain tumour issues where simply too debilitating for him to write. You probably get away with claiming Time Enough For Love, which certainly fits the long, meandering and pervy description, on the early stages of an undetected problem, but its sequel To Sail Beyond the Sunset, equally rambling and incestuous (in multiple senses of the term) was long after the tumour period, his last book.

    The Heinlein novels in which his characters end up being transported through space time to live in incestuous group marriages do begin, more or less, just prior to the tumour period, but continue until the end of his life, including his last novel (and were interspersed with other novels of a more varied character). So no blaming Heinleins pervy weirdness on his tumour — he just took a very odd literary turn. He claimed it was in part inspired by James Branch Cabell.

  13. Given that he wrote All You Zombies in 1958, I don’t think you can reasonably attribute Heinlein’s pervy time traveling incest stories to any of his decades-later medical conditions (unless you presume that those plot lines were somewhat autobiographical).

    I’m guessing he could just get away with writing them more easily later in his career.

  14. So far Stross has not disappointed me, but late period Heinlein certainly has, and I love both authors, so I’m not so sure I want to pick this up.

  15. Not disregarding the right to have your own opinion, I have to say that you guys are somehow not getting the point. Heinlein’s late novels are long? Sure. Incestuous? Sure. But “pervy” and “weird”? Surely not. And because of a brain tumor?
    Come on guys, you sound like children complaining about how boring are the classic literature books you had to read in highschool, no depth at all.

    The man matured, he was questioning values of today considering he was writing about societies waaay ahead in the future, and considering the consequences of a clash between their values and the old (nowadays) due to time travel possibilities. He was an engineer from the navy when young (not entirely sure but heard that), grew with all that imposed order and sexual tabu, then he is writing in 60s and 70s about sexual liberation and you guys seem to think this is weird? come on…

    I imagine the general opinion on Philip Dick’s novel’s such as Valis or Radio Albemuth. You guys must think he was derranged. Personaly I see them both as geniuses. Sorry, but do acquire some depth in your criticism even if you don’t like it. And you can dislike, not complaining about that at all.

  16. Bought this one on sight, loved it. It riffs extensively on Heinlein’s Friday, starting off with the protagonist’s name. Stross inverts many of Heinlein’s tropes in an entertaining fashion; probably the most eye-crossing one for me is the depiction of space travel as hideously expensive and uncomfortable, vs. Heinlein’s usual assumption that space travel would be commonplace and affordable. Highly recommended.

  17. I agree with #2. I actually quite liked the robopervy world Stross created, but I didn’t really like the plot much by the end. I thought he created some very interesting characters, and I think he could have used them to much greater effect.

  18. I don’t really think the incest of All You Zombies is in any way comparable to the late period novels. It was simply necessary to set up the situation of him having come from himself and it was as far offstage as it could be consistent with the idea of the story.

  19. Brain Tumor vs. Naturally Pervy Heinlein argument:

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966, 10 years before tumor time. I am pretty sure that Manny’s line marriage is still considered ‘pervy’, and Wye Knott’s sexuality was a bit ahead of her time as well.

  20. Sounds like just the sort of book I would enjoy reading. However, the ebook price of 23 USD was rather off-putting. When I see the hardcover at 16 USD and change, and an ebook price substantially higher….I just wonder what the heck is going on. I’d prefer an ebook for space, convenience and tree-saving, and I just don’t get why publishers don’t pass the savings on.

  21. I just finished this book this morning. I liked it, but his novel length fiction kind of drags. This was certainly crisper and more engaging writing than Glasshouse or Singularity Sky, but it is still his short fiction work which is his strongest suit. Having said that, the guy has more ideas, a greater wit and brings more knowledge to the table than almost any other writer working in scifi today. He has got the tools and continues to hone his craft and I continue to read and enjoy his work.

  22. I’ve read this before as a short story probably 25 years ago. Can’t remember who by though.

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