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Future Text

Charles Stross Brings Robert Heinlein's Robot Sexy Back

Alex Fine

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 7/30/2008

Saturn's Children

By Charles Stross


For those uninitiated to speculative fiction's history and tropes, Charles Stross' Saturn's Children (Ace) is a simple tale about a sex robot who is out of work because the humans she was built to service are extinct. For readers who didn't even finish the rest of the previous sentence once they saw the words "sex robot" because they were too busy logging on to Amazon to get a copy of the book, congrats. You won't be disappointed. There is sex--and robots--aplenty in Saturn's Children. Enjoy.

But there is more to the book than naughty bits, which is where Children becomes muddled and troubling. The sex robot, Freya, finds herself embroiled in a convoluted scheme involving other robots, socioeconomics, and pink goo. About halfway through, just when you hope the plot will start to spin into a thread that you can tie your brain onto, it gets more self-reflexively complex again as Freya starts to become someone else, unless, of course, she isn't really.

Here's where Children starts to get tricky, not just for the reader but also for this particular reviewer. I've long found Stross' books--including the Hugo Award finalist Glasshouse--so tangled that they start to lose the bits of storytelling that I crave in any piece of fiction, not just the speculative sort. Niceties such as character, motivation, and humanity are abandoned for fussy world-building and technological bric-a-brac.

When you add in passages that are designed to show off Stross' vocabulary--such as ". . . a hollow dread fills me at the thought of falling into their squamous grasp. In this garden of rest, the screaming wordless living have come to outnumber the dead . . ."--it's hard to cozy up to what the author and his characters are trying to convey. While there are readers who love Stross and his prose, I feel continuously forced out of his stories.

So why bother picking Children up in the first place? The first reason can be summed up with "sex robot." The second reason has to do with my first science-fictional love, Robert Heinlein's books. When I was a virginal SF reader, it was Heinlein who popped my cherry. We've grown apart in the last 25 years, but I'll never forget his seminal work Friday and the impact it had on me.

Stross' Children is an homage/pastiche/tribute to Heinlein's Friday, which makes it irresistible to all of us who hold precious memories of that earlier book. Some of Stross' allusions are clear, evident from the moment you see the U.S. cover art that tips its, um, tits and jumpsuit at the iconic Michael Whelan art that graced the 1983 Del Rey Friday paperback.

The parallels are even closer in the text proper. Heinlein's Friday is a more-than-human courier who is a pawn in universe-spanning social upheaval--ditto Stross' Freya, whose name is a Nordic take on the name "Friday." Both carry important cargo in a kangaroo-style pouch in their bellies. Both enjoy the carnal sides of existence.

But Children isn't just a copy of Friday with higher-tech whistles; it's also a commentary on Heinlein's ethos and legacy. For example, this well-known-to-SF-geeks quote is from the Grand Master's Time Enough for Love: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Stross' version reads, "Why bother learning all that biochemistry stuff--or how to design a building, or conn a boat, or balance accounts, or solve equations, or comfort the dying--when you can get other people to do all that for you in exchange for a blow job?"

For a Heinlein fan, it's hard not to snicker at Stross' devoted-yet-critical deconstruction of Heinlein's pet themes, which litter Children like so many one-night stands.

In the end, however, it's hard to know what to make of it all. Freya, if taken in isolation, isn't an interesting enough character to carry the book and is frequently upstaged by supporting players like the sheepdogish Daks and her handler Jeeves. Also distracting are the moments where you can almost hear the Beavis-and-Buttheadian giggling when Stross gets into the gritty details of how his female sex robot's bits function. Underneath it all, Stross seems to be saying something about identity and class, but those larger ideas get buried in a labyrinthine plot that isn't overly satisfying on its own.

Still, for a Heinlein fan, Saturn's Children is an interesting game of spot the reference. Unfortunately, it feels like Stross spent too much energy winking at the crowd and not quite enough on building a better sex robot story.

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