Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nominee Thoughts: Neptune's Brood

This year I'm giving each nominated work for the Hugo and Nebula novel awards their very own entry after I read them.


Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross bears the distinction of being the most boring story I’ve ever read about robot mermaids.

Okay, to be fair, it’s the only story that I can recall reading that involves robot mermaids.

Nonetheless, if I hadn’t been challenging myself to read all of the Hugo and Nebula nominated novels, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

Okay, okay, I would have thought about not finishing it. I did think about not finishing it. But I probably would have regardless, because that’s the kind of reader that I am.

I always feel a little awkward criticizing things that I am supposed to like. I feel as if, by virtue of being nominated, this work should be good. I should be the kind of person who likes this. But I don’t.

Aside from inducing some boredom, I disliked the narrative tactic, which was used several times, of the narrator stating, “I don’t know what happened, but this is what I imagine happened.” And then the imagined happenings are described in exacting detail. It seems like cheating to me, a clumsy way of conveying information that the narrator did not witness. Or perhaps a way that is trying too hard to be clever. I’m not claiming that I could do it better, but I think that it could have been done better.

The pace felt odd. There was an overall sense of urgency to the narrator’s desire to find her sister, but everything in the world happened slowly. To me, there was a disconnect between the pace of desire and the pace of action. I will concede that the pacing fit the subject matter of the book.

Not the described subject matter on the dust jacket, but what the book was actually about. Judging from the description, this was going to be exciting. Space Opera! Missing sibling! Treasure! Oh, but wait, the crux of it all is banking. That’s right, this is all about interstellar finance.

And while I’m writing about things that the author doesn’t necessarily have control over, there’s the cover. The cover features a mermaid. A mermaid with a perfectly ordinary human face. But in the novel, there is a specific description of this specific character, detailed and repeated more than once. The character harps on the fact that her face is changed in order to adapt for the deep water (and she really doesn’t dig the tail), but the cover reflects none of that weirdness. It seems misleading to depict a non-hard science version of the mermaid on the cover of what is clearly, by all the exacting detail of space flight and finance, a hard science novel. People who like that sub-genre will like it for what it is, not for what the publishers would like you to believe that it is.

It seemed like every time something moderately exciting came up, it was immediately drowned in “realistic” finance. Oh, look, pirates! Wait, not, those aren’t pirates. They’re insurance adjusters. In bat bodies. That are also robots. But still manage to be boring.

The main villain is a caricature, completely one-dimensional and evil. She has no motives beyond greed, and barely appears as a character, let alone as an obstacle for the protagonist. It’s all about long laid plots and dastardly financial dealings that necessitate the death of various robots. And I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about their deaths. As robots, their personalities exist on soul chips. The reduction of the concept of a soul to a physical object that can be copied, transferred and backed up gave me the sense that their deaths had little meaning. In a way, the concept of infinite monkeys typing up Shakespeare is related, in that if your soul is data on a chip, then it is possible to reproduce “you” given enough time and processing power.

I didn’t relate to the personhood of the protagonist sufficiently to find her banking adventure compelling, despite the space battles and robot mermaids, squids and bats.

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