Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location – the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.
In a universe with no faster-than-light travel that’s a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of an assassin on Krina’s tail, by the ‘privateers’ chasing her sister’s life insurance policy and by growing signs that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.
Neptune’s Brood is that rare thing in science fiction, a hard dismal science fiction novel. Stross’ blog has always shown his interest in economics, and this novel is an opportunity to apply that interest to the gay science…
This is a far future novel, making it inherently optimistic, although it is populated by human-identical artificial intelligences for the most part, with “Fragiles” – biological humans – much more limited in their geographical profuction. Neptune’s Brood is also a universe where bodies are very alterable and editable for survival or aesthetic purposes; Stross acknowledges, although not strongly, the impact this could have on ideas of gender while still generally holding to the binary. What makes it stand out from most SF of this sort is the lack of FTL; the implications of that are huge, and what the novel centres on.
Neptune’s Brood is, in no small part, an economics textbook on far-future, interstellar finances with obvious relation to modern banking practices, and a look at the implications of the idea of money. This includes a three-level money system and interstellar debt, interbank cooperation and a twist on the idea of various scams. Stross doesn’t sugar-coat this expository element; the narrator, Krina, actively points out on more than one occasion that she is literally giving what to her is an Econ 101 direct-to-camera, as it were. This is increasingly frustrating as the story goes on, as a page of exposition on complex financial implements relates to another such a hundred pages before and both have to be understood to go forward or to understand the plot; Stross demands a lot from his readers with this approach, although the climax of the economic elements means it pays off handsomely.
Of course, this isn’t actually an economics textbook. Neptune’s Brood, taken as a novel, is a sort of far future posthuman interstellar heist-thriller novel, Scott Lynch meets Alastair Reynolds sort of thing; the action is drawn out by exposition and Stross’ decision to only slowly reveal even the basics underlying the plot, a frustrating device that leaves the reader, rather than wanting to know the whole story, annoyed that the narrator keeps withholding it from their audience. Despite often brushing over its action scenes, the book has its moments of brilliance and flashes of humour that come through in its action, as well as a dark appreciation for the implications of both posthumanism and interstellar non-FTL travel. These redeem it, alongside the characters themselves.
It’s those characters, so recognisably human while also so very clearly not, that are really the selling point of Neptune’s Brood as more than an extended thought experiment. Krina especially displays a broad, interesting range of human emotion, most fascinatingly her reclusiveness and fear of violence; in a thriller those elements make her an incredibly atypical hero, an academic in the mode of Dan Brown’s tendencies but one who actually acts like an academic, fascinated by her speciality but not all that interested in conspiracies or events outside it, and hardly an action hero. The rest of the cast are painted more sketchily, but from the privateer-insurance underwriter Count Rudi of the Crimson Permanent Assurance Company to Queen Medea, they all have their own secrets, tricks up their sleeves, and other little plays.
All in all, Neptune’s Brood is quite a satisfying read, and one that makes you think; I only wish Stross didn’t like the infodump-exposition as a technique so much!