“A historian who works for a bank: That’s not the most likely background for someone who capers around the cosmos having adventures, is it?” So ponders Krina Alizond-114 en route to locate her missing sibling Ana Graulle-90 with whom she was to have been studying, unaware that she is being pursued by another party to whom she bears a close physical resemblance, nor that her couriers might not have been entirely forthcoming about the condition of the ship she has arranged working passage on.
A discourse on the accountancy practices of deep space colonies may not sound exciting, but departing Taj Beacon in the Dojima system having booked passage on a (barely) flying gothic cathedral where she is assigned to clean the bone crypts, it is soon apparent that there will be more diversions than divisions, and that is before the arrival of marauding insurance broker Rudolf Crimson-1102 of the armed privateer Branch Office Five Zero.
Neptune’s Brood, the new novel from Charles Stross, is set in the same universe as his earlier work Saturn’s Children but five hundred centuries and several light years more distant, and while that book provided background on the adapted species which now calls itself humanity, this new volume serves for new readers as a primer on Krina’s species and their peculiarities, with any required information explained as soon as the need arises.
Bearing only a superficial external resemblance to organic life though still emulating the psychology of that extinct species, the manufactured body form established in Saturn’s Children is explored in more intimate technical detail here, and fascinating it is, but while the complexity of the plot mirrors that book the tension is more akin to linking short story Bit Rot, the grim possibilities raised there now given full and frightening flight in the escape of a hungry robot zombie eager to cannibalise fellow travellers for sustenance.
There are moments which recall Freya of Saturn’s Children directly, a woman who could keep secrets from herself by only thinking of aspects of her mission when her soul chip was removed, preventing them from being recorded into her permanent backup, and there are also reminders of how awful space travel is.
Having established the dangers of the deep space setting and the need to constantly maintain equipment, Stross elects half way through to visit the most extreme environment opposite to that, the crushing pressure of water world Shin-Tethys, the passage to Shin-Tethys culminating in the most terrifying re-entry/splashdown scene since the first Apollo astronauts came back to Earth, and then throws in some mermaids, entirely justified by the plot.
There is a tendency to recap on the economic structure, but with the complexity of the universe, it is justified, and Krina did warn the reader to pay attention and that there would be a test later. Fortunately, even when lecturing on the various methods of interstellar fraud, Krina’s tone is conversational and warmly droll rather than schoolmarmish, and just as well, for this is a wholly new universe of detail and wonder full of processes, politics and shenanigans, and half the joy of the novel is the meticulous and ridiculous level of detail Stross has created.
The novel continually surprises, never more so than with an interlude of 1,000 years before the main narrative, a beautifully written elegy for a decomposing body as it drifts to the bottom of the sea, taking with it secrets better left hidden. With sweeping scope from the anatomy of a colonisation and the forces driving it, from leaving Sol system to starfall, the book is akin to a birthing star, a cloud of swirling gas which becomes more focused before suddenly igniting, the brilliance revealed as it shows its true voice and identity.
With his ongoing Merchant Princes and Laundry Files series planetbound and the statement from Stross that he is unable to revisit the world of his two other hard SF novels Iron Sunrise and Singularity Sky because that universe is broken, we can but hope for a third visit to Krina’s siblings, as the repercussions of the events of this novel will leave that complicated and fascinating universe, if not broken, profoundly altered.
Neptune’s Brood is now available from Orbit books
Charlie Stross talks about the origin of the novel and its predecessor here, and about the Merchant Princes here