Science fiction is much more about projecting the present than it is about predicting the future. A salutary example of the genre at its most invigorating and audacious is Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (a nominal sequel to Saturn’s Children), one of his most entertaining and even-handed novels to date, and also one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking space operas I have read in a long time.
Space pirates who look like giant bats! Metahuman mermaids who skulk in the depths of a water giant circling a distant star! Robots with mechanocytes instead of good old-fashioned human cells! A weird religious sect with a divine mission, and a flying church, to colonise distant worlds! Family intrigue, squabbles, sibling rivalry! And a good old-fashioned space war!
Neptune’s Brood ticks all the boxes for what SF readers enjoy in space opera, from exotic locales to future tech. What makes this novel so endlessly fascinating though is its extrapolation of current capitalism into an interstellar context.
That is, how the prevailing global economic system could be adapted to finance planetary colonisation, and what such funding mechanisms and institutions would look like and function. We forget about the instalment plan, let alone the insurance rates and depreciation value, on your typical starship (“Starships are all work and no fun,” Stross comments at one point.)
If this sounds as dry and boring as old toothpaste, fear not, for Neptune’s Brood is incredibly intriguing and entertaining, because wherever you have rampant capitalism, you invariably have rampant greed, Ponzi schemes, scams and general skulduggery, even if it is among the stars. “People behave very oddly when the ownership of large quantities of money is at stake.”
Stross’s stroke of genius in this novel is his evocation of ‘slow money’, billed as “a medium of exchange designed to outlast the rise and fall of civilisations.” Cash, on the other hand, is ‘fast money’, whereas ‘medium money’ “is the bony skeleton of a planetary economy.”
Krina Alizond-114, a “historian of accountancy practices”, is a hugely likeable character. “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?” she remarks deprecatingly. We are assured that Krina-114 is not ‘mad’, only highly numerate. “I find the contemplation of figures soothing,” she confides to the reader. And we do, too…
So much contemporary SF is about socio-cultural issues, from gender to language and the bio-ethics of terraforming. Rarely have I seen an author take such a delight in interstellar economics as does Stross. Not to mention wishful thinking, with the citizens of Atlantis aiming “to establish a world completely free of money, a world populated by new teuthidian humanity, with a society based on consensus, not debt, and respect for collective autonomy, not competitive commerce. A world where the word ‘free’ will not be needed because nothing will cost anything and everything will be attainable!”
In the end, Stross lets us believe that this may even be possible.