Charles Stross introduces Neptune’s Brood

As though the saga of the Merchant Princes weren’t enough to keep him busy, this week sees the publication of Neptune’s Brood, the new novel from prolific author Charles Stross, the long awaited sequel to Saturn’s Children. When we spoke earlier in the year, he talked at length about the genesis of Saturn’s Children and offered a few hints where the story would go next, five thousand years later and many light years distant.

“I was under contract to do a space opera, and they really wanted the third Eschaton novel after Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and I am not going to write that book ever because the universe is broken. So I had to come up with a space opera that was plausible, and it was the centenary of Heinlein’s birth, which got me interested, and there’s this sort of rite of passage for many SF writers of writing a Heinlein homage, and they all write Heinlein juveniles and I decided that’s boring, let’s write a dirty old man late phase Heinlein tribute novel.

“Which was the best of his novels from that period? Well, I think actually Friday. Friday had interesting things to say if he’d just been able to make it cohere properly. He was trying to write about a very damaged young woman, a victim of child abuse so severe that she was convinced she wasn’t actually human, and it’s the story of her coming to terms with her own identity.

“So, I rolled the dice. Heinlein has three standard plots that he’s written. The one that I came up with that I was going to use, rolling dice, was The Man Who Learned Better. Goes around, has adventures all over the solar system, learns about himself, or in this case herself, because it’s ripping off Friday. Well I then said to myself it’s got to be a late period Heinlein, what is the signature trademark of a late period dirty old man Heinlein novel? It’s got to be the nipple that goes spung!

“But there’s a problem with this. We here in the reality based community know that human nipples do not go “spung,” so what kind of nipple goes “spung” anyway? Well, how about one attached to a non-human body, say a robot? And there’s no plausible reason why a robot nipple shouldn’t go spung, except why the fuck does a robot have nipples? There’s a very obvious easy answer to go for: it’s because it’s a sex robot.

“But having solved one problem, why the robot has nipples, I now have another problem which is why does a sex robot have adventures, because a sex robot’s career is by design meant to be very boring and involve a lot of lying on its back. Okay, something has gone very badly wrong, she’s no longer able to operate in accordance with her design purpose, I know what, the human species went extinct! So at this point we have all the McGuffins in place to understand where Freya comes from. She’s a sex robot who came off the production line six months after the human species was declared extinct. As the Rolling Stones put it, can’t get no satisfaction.

“She plays the hurdy-gurdy because she was programmed to learn a musical instrument and there was a Hungarian folk music revival going when she was pulled out of a factory after thirty years in mothballs, and it’s about two hundred years later, she’s been working in a variety of menial jobs in the fringes of society and she’s actually thinking about ending it all at the beginning of the book when a very nasty person attempts to end it all for her.

“And thereafter we have adventures. And The Man Who Learned Better. Or in this case, the Sex Robot Who Learned Better.

“I had to leap five thousand years into the future of Saturn’s Children for Neptune’s Brood because it’s set in another solar system, and here in the real world we tend to vastly underestimate the difficulty of interstellar travel. One of the McGuffin’s in Saturn’s Children was I was attempting to do a realistic depiction of the difficulty and expense of space travel, which is to say it’s really unpleasant, it takes an incredibly long period of time, it’s extremely dangerous and the distances go up exponentially.

Neptune’s Brood is an attempt at showing the political economy and banking crisis of a universe in which we have interstellar colonies, but the fastest that anyone has sent a space ship is about one per cent of the speed of light. The human beings in this universe start off as the robots of Saturn’s Children but they’re basically computers running an emulation of a human neural network in a robot body.

“It’s basically my excuse to have human beings who don’t grow old and who don’t die if exposed to vacuum for a minute, without which you can’t really do space colonisation at all. If you’ve got those traits, longevity and resilience to a frankly terrifyingly hostile environment, then you can start writing fiction about interstellar colonisation, but you then run into the interesting question which is, what is the justification for it?

“We have religious justifications, yes, and religions are some of our longest standing social structures, but how exactly do we go about funding it? Which is why our protagonist Krina is a mild mannered middle aged, roughly a hundred year old historiographer of accountancy practices whose speciality is variance of the advanced fee fraud that operates across interstellar distances and rely on claims to have invented faster than light travel. Wackiness ensues.”

Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood are both available now from Orbit

Special thanks are due to Sophie Portas of Pan Macmillan for arranging the interview and Charles Stross for his time.

The rest of interview will be online shortly, where Charlie talks about The Rapture of the Nerds, his recent collaboration with Cory Doctorow and much more, and click here for the story behind Charlie’s Merchant Princes saga



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