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Literature / Saturn's Children

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Saturn's Children, and its sequel Neptune's Brood, are a pair of science fiction novels by Charles Stross, set in a universe where humanity has gone extinct and our robot descendants are the dominant civilization.

By the 23rd century Mankind has died out, leaving the intelligent robots they created to carry on as best they can. Independent and self-sustaining, the robots struggle to find purpose in their "lives". Freya Nakamichi is one of these robots: created as a Sexbot, she now has no reason to exist (seeing as there are no more humans around to sex up). While visiting Venus, Freya gets into trouble with some high-ranking robots. With things getting too hot for her, Freya is thankful to find a courier job that will take her off-planet. Unfortunately, the package she's carrying turns out to contain a secret that many robots would kill to possess...or die to destroy.

There is a story, "Bit Rot", which bridges the gap between the two novels. It can be read here.

Provides examples of:

  • After the End: The Solar System is inhabited only by robots centuries after the mysterious extinction of humanity.
  • Arson Murder And Jay Walking: Freya is particularly annoyed at Granita for the various impositions that she put her through:
    She's humiliated me and stolen 5 years of my life, and I strongly suspect she's killed one of my sisters, too, and to add insult to injury, she tried to stop me from having sex!
  • Ascended Fridge Horror: Freya was programmed to be overwhelmed by feelings of submission and subservience at the merest sight of Homo sapiens, and totally unable to go against their slightest whim — how, you may ask, do you condition a robot to behave in such a way? Later on in the novel, we find out that Freya's long-dead designers did so by inflicting traumatic sexual abuse on her during her "adolescence".
  • Death Is Cheap: If you consider restoration from a backup to be "surviving death", then it is indeed cheap. Only you'll need a compatible, unused body, an up-to-date soul chip and someone with the interest of uniting the two. Needless to say, no-one expects any of this to happen. Alternatively, your siblings may remember you by running your soul chip, but it isn't much like living again.
  • Dedication: Charles Stross dedicated the novel to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Most robots, based on design schematics and such, believe that they were created by human beings. A few, however, believe in the holy doctrine of Evolution, and its prophets Darwin, Dawkins, and Gould. The religious comparisons only get stranger, when a member of a cartel seeking to bring back humans talks about constructing Tyrannosaurs, as many historical records of the Creators showed humans and dinosaurs living side by side, and doubtless the Creators knew best about the species that made up the environment needed to support them so they'd better start cloning those, too.
  • Ghost Memory: The robotic beings can obtain the memories of their sibs (other individuals of the same model) by putting in the sib's "soul chip".
  • Global Warming: After humanity went extinct, waste heat from the nano-economy combined with indifference from the surviving robots to cause a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth (the Gulf of Mexico is described as having reached a roiling boil).
  • Grey Goo: Neatly inverted — robots think of organic life as "pink goo", reproducing without limit.
  • Heart Drive: Most robots have a personality chip to back up their memories/personalities. This can be used to keep them alive by transferring their mind to another body or to learn from dead "siblings". "Wearing" the chip of another robot for too long however can lead to their personality usurping the original owner's and as a back up can take months or years to be fully complete. Threatening to destroy another robot's personality chip is a good way of ensuring they behave themselves.
  • Homage: Though not an overt comedy, the book is a tongue-in-cheek homage/parody of Golden Age SF planetary adventure stories, as well as the works of Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov (to whom the book is dedicated).
  • Humanity's Wake: The story is about humanoid robots living in the wake of humanity's demise. Amusingly, we find out in Neptune's Brood that humanity was resurrected by the robots... only to go extinct again. This happened several times.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Humanity died out long ago and left behind a race of intelligent robots that took its place. The plot deals with a consortium of wealthy robots who are trying to recreate a living human, which could have cataclysmic effects on robot society because obedience to humans is still hard-coded into their programming. A military organization called the "Pink Police" is theoretically dedicated to protecting the sterilized husk of Earth from being infected by new organisms before Humanity can be properly resurrected, but in practice are much more interested in exterminating attempts to bring back the creators.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: At the end, we learn that the book we have just read is a message Freya is about to send back to her sisters on Earth, to warn them that their supposedly long-dead mother Rhea is still alive and dangerously insane.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: Metahuman "biology" (for lack of a better term) evolved by combining biological strategies and organization with mechanical processes.
  • Mercurial Base: There is a city on Mercury that's mounted on tracks that stretch around the planet, and which follows the terminator to avoid getting too hot or too cold. Freya's enemies tie her to the tracks and leave her for dead.
  • Mundane Dogmatic: No FTL, AI comes from mirroring natural human brains, it is programmed used mundane psychology, etc., etc. The robot society is derived from a capitalist economy and also based on all human flaws. Neptune's Brood features a water world covered in an ocean hundreds of kilometers deep, far past the point where it should have frozen from sheer pressure alone. Explaining what keeps it liquid allows Stross to expound on the bizarre ways water acts under extreme heat and pressure.
  • My Eyes Are Leaking: Freya is alarmed for a moment when her vision becomes blurred and she registers saline leakage; a surprisingly non-functional response to emotions programmed into her by her long-extinct creators.
  • Non-Indicative Title: While the plot takes place on several different planets and moons in the solar system, Saturn isn't one of them, and there are no children in the story. Neptune's Brood is set in a completely different solar system, though it does involve a water world. They cease being non-indicative titles once one realizes they reference the actual gods Saturn and Neptune instead of the planets named for them, which is not immediately obvious or something anyone without a good working knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology is ever likely to get.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Justified by explaining that the actual term "robot" — derived from the Czech word "robota", meaning "to work" — is considered a Fantastic Slur. To avoid using "the R-word", menial or otherwise-limited mechs are called "arbeiters" (which is just the German word for "worker"). Neptune's Brood shows that their technology has advanced to the point that they're basically advanced Mechanical Lifeforms based on mechanical cells called mechanocytes, analogous to our biological cells. They just call themselves "metahuman" and refer to old-fashioned biological humans as the "Fragile".
  • Personality Chip: Robots have "soul chips", which contain not their personalities, per se, but a recording of their experiences and thoughts, so if one were to wear someone else's soul chip, one to some extent wears that other robot's personality as well.
  • Planet of Steves: Freya is "instantiated" from a line of robots who all have the same body and wake up believing they are the original bot, Rhea. Her full name, Freya Nakamichi-47 includes her manufacturer and clone instance number. They avert this by taking individual names. However, she then encounters The Jeeves Corporation, run by a line whom all refer to themselves as Jeeves. Later on, a specific Jeeves is referred to as "Reginald"; fans of Wodehouse won't find this helps the confusion much.
  • Plot Coupon: Lampshaded via pun:
    "Don't get cute." He grinds the gun barrel against the back of my neck. "The encapsulated bird your conspirators sent you to fetch. The sterilized male chicken with the Creator DNA sequences. The plot capon. Where is it?"
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Justified. The (extinct) "Creators" never figured out how to program self-aware AIs from scratch. Instead, they just copied the way human brains work.
  • Robot Girl: Both novels, though Neptune's Brood to a lesser degree since Krina isn't necessarily a "robot" in the usual sense of the word.
  • Robot Religion: Played for Laughs. Some robots have examined all the relevant scientific evidence and concluded that robots were intelligently designed by a creator. Others fervently believe that robots evolved from simpler forms by means of natural selection, as described in their holy text: Darwin's Origin of Species...
  • Robots Enslaving Robots: The book is all about this. One of Freya's main worries is ensuring she always has enough money in the bank to never become another robot's property.
  • Sexbot: Freya is a sexbot in a world where humanity is extinct, making her existence almost pointless — though for some reason, the majority of the robot population is capable of having and enjoying sex anyways. It's not just the humaniforms; interplanetary transports provide "internal massages" to their passengers, both to pass the time and to pad them against acceleration, but probably the most questionable example is when Freya has sex with a sentient hotel. These aren't leftovers from when humans were still around: both transports and hotel are explicitly designed for the robot population. Possibly justified by the AI minds being based on human minds, and (let's face it) sex is one of the primary drivers of human behavior.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In addition to numerous shout-outs to Robert A. Heinlein, the book has a MacGuffin disguised as a statue of a black bird and an organisation of robot butlers who are all called Jeeves, one of whom has taken the name "Reginald"; Jeeves's first name in the books.
    • There's a brief reference to one of Stross' other works, Halting State. In that book, "Hentai Animatics" is a company writing computer games. By the time of Saturn's Children, they're designing sexbots like Freya.
  • Space Elevator: Mars has a space elevator called Bifrost.
  • Starfish Robots: After the demise of humanity, the robots least attached to their creators have formed a new aristocracy, and Freya is despised for her Deceptively Human Robot appearance. Most other robots have a more practical appearance for living and working in outer space or other planets. "Chibiform" robots are described as being more efficient (in terms of mass and energy usage) than pure human forms, and the "metahumans" in Neptune's Brood take on a variety of odd forms, such as giant bats or aquatic creatures.
  • Take That!: While the book is mostly Affectionate Parody, there's a few swipes at Heinlein as well; Word of God is that the first impetus for the creation of Freya was to ask why anyone's nipples would go "Spung!", and there's two separate swipes at the "specialization is for insects" line — at one point, Freya notes that no-one can do most of the things Heinlein's Renaissance Man can do; as a generalist, her main ability is to find a specialist who can do them for her, and the colony ship requires lots and lots of specialists, and a few generalists to cover everything else. She also has a rather more personal observation on specialisation:
    I'm a generalist, not a specialist. 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?
  • Three Laws-Compliant: The robots were all basically created this way — in fact, the book quotes the three laws right at the beginning. However, with mankind extinct, the first two laws don't come up very often. In fact, the possibility of the first two laws complicating their lives is why some robots are so thoroughly opposed to the thought of trying to bring man back using genetic records and the like. More to the point, why a power-hungry cabal would be keenly interested in having a pet human to inflict on prospective subjects. It's deconstructed a bit: because the robots were created by mapping human neural nets, the first two laws have to be imposed afterwards. The methods used to do this are not pleasant. By the time of Neptune's Brood, this has apparently become a non-issue. The "metahumans" don't seem to have these issues and it's mentioned off-hand that humanity has been resurrected several times in the intervening 5000 years, apparently without issue.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Mankind is extinct, but the robots he created are still around, and still debating what rules apply to them. This is also become a non-issue by the time of Neptune's Brood: Humanity has basically settled out into "fragile" (us) and "metahuman" (our biomechanical descendants).
  • What Would X Do?: When Freya is posing as "the Honorable Katherine Sorico", she has to keep asking herself "WWtHKSd?"