Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saturn's Children as a commentary on Heinlein?

I really wasn't that impressed with the book but may have to reread it. It had many similarities to Friday and other Heinlein stories but....

From Raygun Review PDF:

January 2008
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross
Ace, 2008, 336 pages
Reviewed by Steve Davidson

I’ve just finished Saturn’s Child, Charlie Stross’ homage/send-up of the works of Robert A. Heinlein and I’m very tempted to restrict my review to a single word: whew!
What a ride. This is an extremely complex work that twists together an enormous number of elements and themes—far too many to examine in any kind of detail in the space afforded here.

I’ll attempt a summary, just to give everyone some small idea of what they’re in for, because reading Freya’s tale is a must:
A straight re-telling of Heinlein’s • Friday, examining the various Heinleinesque social contentions and offering alternative viewpoints.
An exploration of every single work • Heinlein ever wrote, more often than not from a humorous perspective.
A compilation of contemporary social • issues (global warming, for example) and science fiction tropes (singularity, for example), mixed together and yielding a variety of viewpoints on those issues.
A presentation of and commentary on • the SF genre as a whole.
An action-adventure tale that spans • the solar system.
A mystery/spy thriller story.•
A possible commentary on Spider • Robinson’s completion of Heinlein’s Variable Star (although I’ve not had time to examine this contention in detail).
Most definitely several other themes • I’ve either missed or failed to list.

For those of you embarking on a doctorate in literature, Saturn’s Children is the kind of text that would provide more than enough meat for several dissertations: I’ll suggest that someone could make a very nice career out of charting the references, both overt and subtle, to various works by Heinlein.

That’s not to say that Saturn’s Children is some kind of dry, academic polemic. Far from it. In fact, the single most appropriate word to use to describe this novel is “juicy,” and I use that with every single possible sexual connotation
deliberately in mind.

Be forewarned: if sex in science fiction is a problem for you, don’t read Heinlein’s Friday and stay far away from Saturn’s Children. If fetish sex—particularly of the S&M variety—is something you believe should remain hidden behind brown paper wrappers, well then, Stross’ novel ought to be in brown paper wrappers, behind the counter, inside several layers of asbestos-impregnated plastic bags and under lock-and-key.

I found this aspect of the story to be perhaps the most intriguing (if saying so isn’t revealing too many of my own peccadilloes). Heinlein got progressively sexier as time went by, culminating in the time-travelling enabled, incest-laden confusion of To Sail Beyond The Sunset: there isn’t a single form of human sexuality he didn’t cover, with the exception of bondage/sado-masochism, and Stross focuses on this omission like the tip of a bullwhip in the hands of a master (that’s like saying “with a laser beam” for those of you not familiar with some of the more extreme tools of the S&M trade).

His use of such imagery is deliberate, not for its erotic content, but because it informs the overriding theme of the novel, which is that all of Heinlein’s social commentary was dreck, borne out of some misguided belief that mankind’s sole motivator is love. Saturn’s Children amply demonstrates that love can twist us just as easily as it can save us, and that it has resulted in the former far more frequently than the latter.

The story is a somewhat complicated one: Freya—the Friday stand-in—is a humaniform robot created to serve as a sex toy. Unfortunately, the human race has gone extinct and Freya has no one to ‘imprint’ on. Her type of robot is programmed to fall in love, totally and submissively in love, with the deeply human owner who purchases them.

Stross examines what this kind of programmed love means throughout the story and it serves as an analogy for “true” human love. Are humans deeply in love still beings of free will? Are they capable of making rational decisions? Are their motivations to be trusted?

Freya, on the verge of personal bankruptcy, falls in with a courier service that is really a secret espionage/assassination organization and gets embroiled in a war between various factions of robots, some of whom are bent on resurrecting the human race and others just as desperately trying to prevent this.

Along the way she travels to virtually every planet in the solar system (in a sequence that I believe has some relationship to Heinlein’s novels, although I’ve not yet broken the code), and while doing so, Stross manages to squeeze in a mention of, so far as I can tell, every single story Heinlein ever wrote. Without working at it I found imagery reminiscent of Glory Road, Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough For Love, Farmer in the Sky, Universe, Space Cadet, and on and on. In every single instance, Stross offers a different, if not always contradictory, take on Heinlein’s points of view.

Stross also deals in contrarian fashion with the singularity concept, dismissing it out of hand by having the human race simply fading away and going extinct. Humanity’s works, unfinished, have been left behind, abandoned (like a thrown-over lover I shouldn’t have to point out) to go their own confused way.

Stross also manages to throw a few other contemporary issues in, such as global warming and the growing fight between the “new atheists” and fundamentalists and his take on these is just as refreshingly humorous as everything else in the novel.
Saturn’s Children is highly recommended for everyone; Heinlein fans are particularly encouraged to give it a read: you may not like everything you see, but you will most assuredly recognize Heinlein’s style of presentation and pacing, and if nothing else, it will have you running to the stacks to make comparisons. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading this one multiple times, and I’ll be finding something else that will intrigue and amuse me every single time I do.

Steve Davidson

Steve Davidson has been an SF fan since watching his first episode of Fireball XL5. He is currently the ‘crotchety’ behind the Crotchety Old Fan blog and is the curator of The Classic Science Fiction Channel, a website devoted to classic science fiction film, television, radio and print. He can be found at www.rimworlds.com/thecrotchetyoldfan

No comments: