Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review of Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

It's always frustrating to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos,
especially in view of the fact that we can't travel faster than
light. That means covering the distance to even the nearest star would
take years at best. Add to that the fact that it's improbable we could
even travel at even a small fraction of that speed. Add to that fact
the fact that we are fragile beings and that seemingly empty outer
space is really filled with deadly radiation.

Oh, well, we must give up on space operas, right? Not if you're
Charles Stross. His latest effort, "Neptune's Brood," takes place in a
time when humans have staked a claim on a 50-light-year span of space
and can carry out business in pretty much real time. The fun part is
finding out how have they have done it. I was reminded of Vernor
Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep." In his universe, the speed of light
slowed down the further toward the center of the galaxy you got.

Part of Stross's solution is to make humans a lot less fragile. Almost
everyone has replaced their biological cells with cybernetic
"mechanocytes" that can mold to different shapes and hold the memories
and personality of humans. But it still takes years to physically
travel to the next star system. A network of laser beacons has been
arduously established over a 2,000 year period so that if a person
wants to travel abroad, they merely ship their "soul" aboard a laser
beam to the next beacon and assemble a body at the other end. It's
very costly, of course, so an intricate system of "slow" money has
been set up to finance colonization, while "fast money" is used within
local systems. FTL remains only a dream, and everybody knows it.

The action of Neptune's Brood takes place when forensic banker Krina
Alizond-114 stumbles upon the biggest swindle the galaxy has ever
seen. Recently arrived in the Dojima System in search of her sister,
she dodges assassins and sails aboard a Church of the Fragile ship
(crewed by a literal skeletal crew and headed by Lady Cybelle, its
Borg-like priestess) to the water planet of Shin-Tethys. Forced to
assume the shape of a mermaid and diving to the impossible depths of
Shin-Tethys, Krina meets her sister and learns that their mother, the
original Sondra Alizond-1, was involved in the destruction of a
legendary colony thousands of years ago. And now she is coming to
collect the spoils of the long con, even if she has to destroy her
daughters to do it.

Krina finds an ally in the form of a privateer who survived the colony
destruction and holds an ace up his hairy, ratlike sleeve that can
defeat the evil Sondra. We suspect that it must be FTL, but it
isn't. Quite nicely done, Charles.