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Neptune’s Brood

Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross
Mass Market Paperback
Jun 24, 2014 | 352 Pages
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    Jul 02, 2013 | 352 Pages

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“Witty, smart, and more relevant than you’d expect, this is a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi mind-expander from one of the genre’s most reliable imaginations.”—SFX

“A wonderful bouquet of ideas.”—Boing Boing

“The fun part comes from the way Stross devises his robotkind to act as humanity’s successor species—to imagine them not as intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic but as very much like us, writ not large but as merely durable.”—Locus
“Agreeable characters, a fascinating backdrop and brilliant plotting, with a further outlook of lengthy grins and occasional guffaws.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Author Essay

I’m writing this essay to confess to a minor personality flaw: I’m the grown–up version of the annoying kid with the desk behind you who, whenever your teacher handed down a statement of fact, would stick his hand up and ask, “why?“

I can’t resist the urge to sneak a peek behind the curtain. Show me a glitzy science fiction setting and I have to go and check the tire pressure and check the oil: I can’t simply take it on trust that it works. And so …

For many years (decades even) I’ve been troubled by much of the rhetoric associated with space travel and space colonization. “The Earth’s too vulnerable to disaster –– we can’t keep all our eggs in one basket,“ is a familiar refrain. Or … “we’ve got to move off–Earth and colonise space!“ Yes well, but why? And who’s going to pay for it? “Manifest destiny“ pays no bills. Where did the whole space colonization shtick in SF come from, and why?

One answer is, I think, that SF is essentially the literature of the progressive enlightenment project: fiction about change and the causes of change. The progressive project has been running since the early 18th century, and we are all part of it: even the far–right Tea Partiers are as much products of the Scottish Enlightenment as the most doctrinaire Maoists. For a period of around 80 years, from roughly 1710 through 1790, the capital of Protestant thought, from Edinburgh to Boston, (and later revolutionary France) were swept by new dissenting philosophies that embraced the scientific method, the early formulations of modern economics and history, and the idea that things would get progressively better over time. When the enlightenment hit North America it became inextricably entangled with the founding ideology of a new revolutionary republic, which in turn embarked on a project of westward colonization. And so, in North American SF, the idea of colonial expansion became wrapped up with dreams of change and progress to the point where they’re hard to separate.

But. But. But.

The actual experience of human space travel has brought a rude awakening from the daydreams of golden age SF. Space is hostile: human life cannot exist anywhere beyond our thin caul of atmosphere without extreme technological assistance. The solar system is vast, vast beyond belief. Let’s use east–to–west coast travel across the United States as a distance yardstick: so you want to go to the moon? Fine: multiply the distance from New York to Los Angeles by two orders of magnitude –– a factor of 100. Want to proceed on to Mars? You need to multiply the Earth/Moon distance by another two orders of magnitude. The outer solar system? Stack another couple of zeros. Alpha Centauri? Two zeros won’t cut it: you need another four! And so on. It doesn’t get any easier …

So. Humans can’t survive off–Earth, and the distances are insane enough to defeat any rational economic model for funding mining or settlement. What are we left with? Is there no hope for interstellar colonization?

As it happens, I think there is a loop–hole. It’s a small one, and we’ll need to take drastic measures to slip through it, but I’m not ruling out interstellar expansion …

The first step is to modify our bodies. If Humanity 1.0 is incapable of surviving solar flares, exposure to vacuum, and space voyages lasting decades or centuries, we need to design an improved Humanity 2.0: ruggedized, robotized, able to hibernate between the stars and survive on molecular feedstock and electricity. (I took a stab at this in my earlier novel, “Saturn’s Children“, where for various reasons our species had unwittingly designed into our own successors the necessary traits for survival in the solar system.)

But even if we posit new model humanity with bodies that can survive in space, that still leaves the essential conundrum of interstellar expansion: who’s going to pay for it?

There’s no conceivable payback for interstellar colonies if you look at their economics through the prism of conventional cost accounting. Our accounts are balanced quarterly or annually, on a cycle that would be familiar to a Sumerian temple clerk or a bronze age subsistence farmer. The scale of interstellar travel demands planning on a period of centuries or millennia! Nor is there any commodity is valuable enough to be worth shipping physically across the gulf between stars. It might be undertaken as a religious imperative –– religion doesn’t have to balance the books –– but religious pilgrimages don’t support an economy very well. We’d need a whole new approach to make sense of it …

In a slower–than–light universe (where the fastest anyone travels is just barely fast enough to crawl from Earth to Proxima Centauri in half a millennium), we’ll need new and bizarre ways of thinking about value, and debt, and investment in order to have a hope of building an interstellar polity. And where there is debt and value and investment there is someone trying to lend money at interest, and someone else trying make a fast buck by bending the rules. In other words, high finance and crime.

Welcome to “Neptune’s Brood“, possibly the first novel about interstellar banking fraud …

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