We’re reading NEPTUNE’S BROOD by Charles Stross

7 Oct

A space opera about accountancy? It’s more than a gimmick, says Liz Sourbut.

Orbit, HB £16.99

Set in the same universe as Stross’s earlier Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood follows the outrageous adventures of an interstellar accountant. Or, more accurately, of a historian of accounting fraud.

This is the first space opera I recall reading that focuses on the interstellar banking system, and at its heart is a highly intricate long con. In a universe where no faster-than-light travel is possible (but hasn’t been completely ruled out by the physics) Krina Alizond-114 is an academic accountant who specialises in studying variations on the “FTL scam”. Con artists try to persuade gullible marks that an FTL drive has in fact been invented but that something went wrong during the test flight and they just need a small advance to help them iron out the wrinkles in exchange for a share in untold future wealth. Krina and her distantly related sibling, Ana Graulle-90 have been following up clues in what looks to be the biggest FTL scam of all time. Now Ana has gone missing and as Krina goes in search of her she finds herself pursued by a murderous, non-conscious body-double. Her search takes her to the water-world of Shin-Tethys, first working her passage aboard a space-faring Church of the Fragile (the Fragile being flesh-and-bone humans, people like us) and later as prisoner-turned-crew-member of an “independent customs inspection vessel”, or privateer, captained by the bat-like Count (short for Accountant) Rudi. Once there, she is arrested, abducted, subjected to extreme forms of surgery and faces other challenges rarely encountered by academic accountants.

Neptune’s Brood drips with ideas, many of them thrown away in one-liners, and Stross’s vision of a high-tech post-human future in which the colonisation of the galaxy is being financed by what is effectively a pyramid selling scheme of deferred debt is hilariously plausible. The plot, though well constructed and satisfying, is almost incidental. What matters is how this complex, metahuman world unfolds. This is science fiction as Margaret Atwood would define it: filled with spaceships and giant talking squid, not to mention bats, mermaids and reanimated skeletons. It is baroque, clever, gruesome, riotous – quite frankly, it’s a delight.

Also on the blog:

Liz Sourbut reviews Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars.

Adrian Ellis braves Charles Stross’s The Bloodline Feud.

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