After human extinction, a robot civilization?

This is a review of Charlie Stross’s science fiction novel ‘Saturn’s Children‘.  It’s been out for a few years, but I wanted to read his latest, ‘Neptune’s Brood’, which is a sequel (of sorts), so I started with this one.

Stross describes a universe where humans have gone extinct, but where the sentient machines that once served humanity are still around.  No one is quite sure exactly what happened to the humans, but it is implied that, having built a servant class of machines to do all of the work, they retreated into internal pleasures, losing interest in the outside world, including in reproduction.  And so they gradually declined and disappeared.

The robots in the story are described with human like intentions and motivations.  The main character, Freya Nakamichi-47, is female android designed to be a concubine for humans.  With humans being extinct, she is now largely obsolete.  In addition, most of the humanoid machines in this civilization, at least those who travel in space, have adopted a dwarf like body plan that conserves resources, making Freya a large freak among her own kind.

For these reasons, the story starts with Freya contemplating suicide.  However, events intervene and an adventure ensues that takes her to several locations in the solar system.  She starts out on blimp cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, visits Mercury, Mars, Callisto (one of the moons of Jupiter) and Eris (a dwarf planet far out beyond the orbit of Pluto).

Throughout the story, Stross is able to insert several interesting concepts including the dirigible cities of Venus mentioned above, a sky hook above Venus to swing aircraft into space to rendezvous with an interplanetary craft, a space elevator over Mars counterweighted by Phobos (presumably with its orbit adjusted), and similar but less extravagant space elevator over Callisto.

Stross manages to include multiple existing ideas for interplanetary travel.  The first is a carrier that constantly follows an orbit between Venus and Mercury, with the skyhook mentioned above shooting passenger craft to rendezvous with it.  Another is a solar sail with the sail made from a cloud of plasma held in place by an electromagnetic field.  Nuclear powered VASIMIR rockets and nuclear pulse propulsion are described as a relatively fast, but expensive, means of interplanetary travel.

I say relatively fast because travel as described is still slow, taking months and years in many cases.  This is mitigated somewhat by all of the characters being machines.  On one trip, Freya finds herself with a room above the nuclear reactor and takes heavy does of radiation, which she is able to recover from by visiting a repair shop at her destination.

But the most interesting concepts that Stross explores are the motivations and attitudes of the characters in the story, that is, of the machines.  They are presented as very human like.  Indeed, many of the key characters were designed to be as human as possible in order to relate to them, which gives them many of the same motivations and weaknesses.

With reference to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the characters are described as having been designed to serve humanity, to put human needs ahead of theirs.  With humans gone, this has left a portion of them with a degree of free will.  This is only a portion because a class of aristos have arisen which enslave most of the population.

One of the dangers for Freya, as a self owned entity, is that she might be made into an arbeiter, a slave, controlled by one of the aristos.  So the civilization described is a medieval one, with a class of nobles (aristos), a class of serfs (arbeiters), and a few independents, which includes Freya.

Due to their programming, the characters have a worshipful attitude toward humans, referring to them as “the creators”, with discussions of who they were and what they believed treated as a type of theology.  Stross is never far from humor, as this quote from one of the minor characters during a theology debates shows:

It is from the creators themselves that the holy scriptures of evolution come to us, from the great prophet Darwin, peace be unto him, and his saintly disciples Dawkins and Gould.

Freya is a copy of an earlier android names Rhea, and has a number of sister copies, referred to as sibs, of whom she is the most junior, and with which she shares correspondence.  As each sib dies, their soul chip is removed and sent to the other sibs, who can use them to acquire the experiences of her late sister.  For most of the book, Freya has the chip of an elder sister in her head, and learns a great deal from her.

A while back, I briefly reviewed Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice’, which I praised for its explorations of self and how a distributed mind might work, and the drawbacks it could face.  Stross explores many of the same concepts here, although his work is much nerdier, spending less time on character development and more on the concepts themselves.

Stross spends some time on free will, and the extent to which machines can have it, particularly in relation to humans.  Freya, in particular, as an android designed to be a courtesan, has strong sexual desires, which are powerfully triggered by any human like android.  In the presence of an actual human, her urges would be so powerful that she would have no free will.  She would have no choice but to fall in love with a creator, with a human.

English: Photograph by Simon Bradshaw, 1 May 2...
Stross: photo by Simon Bradshaw (via Wikipedia)

Stross is a good story teller, and he manages to introduce plot twists that put earlier events in the story into a new light.  But anyone thinking about reading him should be warned that his prose tends to be dense, in that he is constantly throwing out ideas and references that many might find obscure.

This puts some work on the reader.  I recall finding some of his earlier work interesting, but frustrating because of how much was going over my head.  Either I’m more well read today, or Stross has learned to moderate his prose density.  I didn’t find ‘Saturn’s Children’ nearly as much as a heavy lift as ‘Singularity Sky’.

It might also be due to the fact that I read this in a Kindle app on a tablet, which allowed me to do a quick web search on any concept that I didn’t understand.  Although I don’t recall using that capability much on this read.

So, if relatively hard nerdy science fiction is your type of reading, then I can hardily recommend this book.  Like most good science fiction, it functions as a thought experiment on how a machine civilization might work.  But, as I mention above, Stross never gets too serious, with many scenes having an absurdity that may have you laughing out loud.

2 thoughts on “After human extinction, a robot civilization?

  1. Stross is a very interesting and funny writer. As you say, he packs in a lot of fascinating ideas, many of which seem credible. At the same time, I find gaping holes in the concepts. For instance, are we expected to believe that the robots don’t know what happened to the humans? Or that in a world of abundant materials and the ability to create new “citizens” at will, a kind of medieval feudal system exists? I find a lot of the plotlines implausible, which spoils it for me.


    1. I remember in Singularity Sky finding the idea of a future super AI warning everyone in his past not to violate causality in his light cone, which in a universe where FTL was possible, didn’t make any sense to me. Then one of my friends suggested that I was taking it all too seriously, that it was meant to be absurd to some degree.

      I actually like that he doesn’t assume abundant materials and that a form of economy would still exist. The post scarcity assumption (which he’s made in some of his other works) doesn’t strike me as realistic.


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