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Neptune's Brood: an excerpt

My US publisher, Ace, has released an excerpt—actually, half the first chapter—of next month's novel, Neptune's Brood.

You can find it via this link on

"I can get you a cheaper ticket if you let me amputate your legs: I can even take your thighs as a deposit," said the travel agent. He was clearly trying hard to be helpful: "It's not as if you'll need them where you're going, is it?"



(I will confess to having worked hard to come up with that opening sentence ...)


Well, it's up there with "It was the day that my Grandmother exploded." IMO, so it was clearly worth the effort.


Does anybody else notice thematic resonances between Charlie's robot societies and the Toy Story movies? They are not that far apart. Conscious, semi-immortal plastic toys whose lives and every waking thought are focused on their relationship with ephemeral god/demon like children.


I have not seen the Toy Story movies. (I'm several decades behind on movie-watching.)


The difference is that Charlie's robots only have the memory of their masters; the Toys deal with their master's caprices every day. I've owned dogs rescued from abusive or clueless owners; I shudder to think of the fate of fully-self-conscious beings placed in that situation (yes, I know that is precisely what happens to slaves right now; I've just never had an ex-slave tell me their story).


I have to admit I really appreciate the opening centence in The Revolution Trade as well. Got a used copy of Neuromancer in Japanese a while back and forgot all about it; I think it's time to crack that one open after I finish the trilogy.


Every time I read that opening sentence I think it's a quote from the first book, Freya trying to line up her trip to Jupiter.


The crucial difference is, Toy Story characters are toys. Their life purpose is being toys. That's what they do.

On the other hands, Freyaverse characters are simply modified humans, human minds in different bodies. You can brainwash them better than the regular humans, but they remain human.

BTW, how come in fucking 7000 years Freyaverse still didn't advance to the "Rapture of the Nerds"-Earth singularity state (I'm going to pretend the all-powerful time-traveling aliens never existed - shame on you, Charlie and Cory)? What's the limiting step?


Core premise of the Freyaverse: magic technology is much harder than it looks. Nobody knows how to do super-intelligent AI, the best we can do is to emulate a human neural network and even then it needs real-time sensory inputs or it goes mad. Again, the fastest anyone gets to travel is maybe 1% of c. And the death rate on interstellar missions is comparable to that on 17th to 18th century intercontinental voyages, i.e. somewhere in the 10-30% range.

(A contributory factor to the lack of progress is that colonization is just easy enough that most inhabited star systems have been settled in the past thousand years -- interstellar missions take centuries to millennia -- and the population density is still relatively low: the posthumans in this universe don't reproduce accidentally when they make love. Low population density means low network effects and therefore relatively low rates of innovation. An issue which is implicitly central to the plot in "Neptune's Brood", but I don't want to spoiler it ...)


the Toys deal with their master's caprices every day

Who are children, that think nothing of pulling limbs off.

Vanzetti @8: Singularity - Been there, done that, got bored, and built artificial bodies? Aren't the characters in the Freyaverse wholly artificial, modeled on humans, but not copies.


Again, the fastest anyone gets to travel is maybe 1% of c. And the death rate on interstellar missions is comparable to that on 17th to 18th century intercontinental voyages, i.e. somewhere in the 10-30% range.

You know, this kinda bothers me. Your modified humans started in a colonized solar system. They have essentially limitless energy and resources. They can create self-replicating robots (for the same material their bodies are made). So, why don't they just build bigger ships? Like, 100 times bigger, and use 99% of the mass for radiation shields/ablation clouds/anti-asteroid lasers/whatever? They are immortal being, why are they risking their lives instead of trading more time (of which they have a lot) to build a safer ship?


modeled on humans, but not copies.

Their minds are human neural networks. So they are more or less humans.


Please tell me Michael O'Leary hasn't read the opening sentence.


Make that 'less'.

Freya is a toy, a sex toy, one who has never encountered an actual human. When she does sort of encounter one, she dissolves into helplessness. She has a lot less agency in the near presence of humans than do Buzz and Woody and co.

The androids of the Freyaverse were designed and built to serve humans. With humans apparently extinct, the androids can do other things, but though their intelligence is modelled on emulated human neural networks, the balance of mental traits will not match those of human populations. I would expect that one deprecated trait would have been excessive creativity.


Perhaps you've discovered why Charlie won't fly Ryanair.


I'll take a stab at those:

-1% of the speed of light is still 9000 times the speed of sound on Earth, meaning that these ships require 81 million times more fuel than a Concorde (rough estimate; Concordes have wind resistance to deal with but rockets need fuel to brake). Making larger interstellar ships is extremely impractical from an energy standpoint, even for beings who are rich in energy by modern standards.

-For robots, sending yourself in duplicate or triplicate on small ships is a cheaper approach. Think of it as a redundant array of inexpensive starships.


Let's assume that the the payload space is near enough negligable mass.

Given that assumption, if you increase shielding mass 100x, and want to maintain journey time as a constant, you increase the required reaction mass and its storage by 100x too. Alternatively you increase journey time by at least 100x, and if you read the whole exerpt, it's clear that Krina's journey is at least time-sensitive if not time-critical.


Read the book. Your question is answered.


Inhuman rights. I can't wait to read it!



I have to admit I really appreciate the opening centence in The Revolution Trade as well. Got a used copy of Neuromancer in Japanese

The opening sentence of that book brought me to a full stop when I read it in 1985 or so.

"The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

I tried to imagine black and white static in the sky over Chiba, but the book never gave any reason for it to look that way.

It was fully ten years later I found out that some newer TVs just went to a dark gray when there wasn't a signal.

There have probably been opening sentences that missed the target worse, but I haven't encountered any yet...


The movies do address the idea of what is a toy outside of being a toy and what is best in life for a toy. Is is better sitting in a closet or being on display in a Tokyo museum as a cultural artifact? Better to be an adult's fond memento or to be played to bits in a daycare? Evil toys set up a slavery system for other toys to avoid destruction; so they can live on and party. Is a child a friend or an evil master? Is there a Buzz LightYear identity outside of his program settings? What does it mean for a cowgirl doll to be in love with Buzz? Is she in love with all of his incarnations or just the first one she met? Is he a different person with his Spanish language setting on? Is Woody's identity determined by the corporate narrative of his origin or by his owner's fantasies or by his interaction with other toys in his offtime? Obviously a kid's movie is not going to pursue these themes all the way, but they do at least open the questions.


Well, obviously we can't apply the same standards to a children cartoon and a piece of hard sci-fi. Toy Story isn't trying to be an internally consistent universe. If you try to make it one, it turns into a horror story.


It practically is a horror story already, considering what happens to some characters and what almost happens to the protagonists. I'm sure plenty of kids are capable of filling in the blanks giving themselves nightmares.

What puzzled me about the Freyaverse was the complete abandonment of ethics the extinct humans evidenced. The whole robot line raising process is the kind of thing Mengele would dream up. I may be an optimist but I don't think realistic sexbots and personal manservants would be enough to make me give up my ethics so totally.

I'm all for nonsentient ones, but once they can pass a turing test I'm out there picketing for their enfranchisement.


You may want to consider that (a) human civilization in the Freyaverse went extinct, and was pretty toxic to begin with (a slave state), and (b) today's civilization is pretty fucked-up too: from a vegan's point of view our treatment of food animals is basically holocaust-grade nightmarish, for example. We simply train ourselves to ignore atrocities in our back yards, be they the US prison system or abattoirs or ... whatever.

(I tried to hint at the decadence and depravity of the last human civilization in that novel without over-egging the pudding.)


I always assumed it was a "the pollution is that bad" sentence. Your mention of the dark grey is the first I've ever heard. So, thanks for that revelation. ",)

Of course, nowadays TVs tuned to a dead channel produce a blue that would never appear in the sky voluntarily, so it still works!


I always suspected the extinction was not entirely spontaneous given how cut off from human history the robot society was, it hints of intentional censorship or cover up.

Then again I do not intend to breed so I guess I can't question the concept of human self extinction through population collapse...


from a vegan's point of view our treatment of food animals is basically holocaust-grade nightmarish

From vegan's point of view, the entire biosphere should be considered holocaust-grade nightmarish. As Pratchett described:

the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain.


Yer the first LMAO SF writer that I've come across. Saturn's Children was my intro to you and it was a smokey breath of fresh air! ;-)


I always figured Case was seeing tracers against a bank of low-level maritime clouds.


In this case, I have to agree with Vanzetti for once.

We think biodiversity is a good thing, right? Most species have some intrinsic right to lived that, at the very least, should not be trumped by a few people wanting to get wealth(ier) by destroying them? Especially if said few want to externalize the cost of saving the remnants on the rest of us?

I happen to believe in this stance, but I do know one more fact: most species in the world are parasites. Each plant species is estimated to be the exclusive host of approximately six species of fungi that are found nowhere else (I don't know of comparable figures for mammals, fish, or especially insects, which are the majority of eukaryotic species). I'd refer anybody to the delightful book Parasite Rex if they think this is a totally benign thing.

The strange thing is that people who work with parasites tend to think that the healthiest natural ecosystems are those that harbor a diversity of parasites. For example, I know one lichenologist who gauges the age and health of a system by how many lichenicolous fungi (fungi that parasitize lichens) that he finds in a system. He's not alone.

This is kind of the point: I'm not going to knock veganism as an idiotic diet choice. I choose to eat vegan two days out of the week, and I'm thinking about adding a third day. Nor do I disregard issues of cruelty in industrial farms. We can do better, and it's frustrating that our food system is deliberately engineered, even legislated, to promote cruelty blindness in the name of maximizing production efficiency.

Still, Vanzetti's right: nature is not intrinsically kind, and we cannot support veganism based on some moral notion of a just nature. Nature is amoral.

Furthermore, I'd add say that farms that humanely treat and kill their animals (e.g. give them a great life, letting follow their instincts, right up to that one bad day at the end) are not intrinsically a bad thing. We're all going to die, and painlessly going on to provide food, pleasure, and income to someone else is far from the worst way to go.


If you ask me, rights can only be reciprocal. If a tiger can't be expected to honor your rights, it shouldn't be given any.


Riiiiiiiight. You realise this would lump in children, special needs patients, dementia sufferers etc as well?


Also great read Charlie! Looking forward to reading the rest. Really keen to find out more about slow, medium and fast money...


Okay, okay - Mermaid Boobies is now officially on the stack to read. After I've re-read Use of Weapons and Inversions, of course.


We already do this. Children are not considered fully human by the eyes of the law. Their rights are severely limited. Ditto the mentally ill. The concepts of "legal guardian" and "age of consent" exist for a reason.


You're sidestepping your own argument there by cherry picking a few examples. A special needs patient may not respect my right not be subjected to physical violence but that doesn't give me the right to use the same physical violence back.

The idea that rights should be totally reciprocal is unworkable and unethical.


I love this excerpt so much. I loved Bit Rot too. I can't bring to mind anyone else trying to write space opera without rewriting physics for the story's convenience. SF writers working on an interstellar scale rarely commit to sublight travel, and even then it's often magical high-relativistic sublight travel.


Reciprocal rights are a pointless argument: this is about pure, unalloyed utilitarianism for humans alone.

This is the argument of the trophic cascade: tigers and other top predators are pretty damn good at protecting forests, and not just by keeping stupid humans away from them (note that forests' primary job is providing a steady stream of drinkable water to downstream human settlements, at least currently). They also keep herbivores under control, which allows the forest to regenerate.

In the larger scheme, parasites promote biotic diversity of their hosts. The chief benefit from diversity is resilience: when the going gets weird, if there are enough weird species around, some will benefit from the circumstances, and the system as a whole will keep going. There will be plants growing that herbivores can eat, herbivores growing that carnivores can eat, and so forth. Simple systems have tighter limits under which they function before breaking down.

This is the danger from mass extinction in the face of climate change: the simple systems that are left may collapse over large areas, and it will require evolutionary time periods (ca. 5-10 million years) for new species to evolve and make a more resilient system.

So the message is: even if that tiger doesn't respect your rights, leave her alone unless you're in love with the idea of things getting worse.


"The sky was the color of radio, tuned to a dead station."


Forests are great consumers of water, giant evaporator systems sucking up groundwater through tree root systems and exhaling it through pores in maximal-surface leaves. If you want water downstream from a thirsty forest you should build canals or better still, slash and burn it to eliminate a competitor for a precious resource.


Or worse, we joke about them and pretend that nothing can be done about them. There is a charming bit in Pope's "Rape of the Lock" where he states that it was the time of day at which judges just start handing out guilty sentences so they can get home for dinner. "And wretches hang that jury-men may dine." Compare American jokes about prison-rape today.


So the message is: even if that tiger doesn't respect your rights, leave her alone unless you're in love with the idea of things getting worse.

I agree with that. But a tiger is a resource to be managed (as part of the ecosystem, assuming we want it), not an equal to be honored.


Hmmm. Maybe we have different notions as to why we even need rights. In my opinion, rights are simply the idea of the equality before the law, named differently. Members of the society decide that everyone should have a certain freedom, and no one should limit it. That's why with every right comes the duty not to interfere with the said right of a different person.

This whole arrangement cannot work with an entity that does not understand what duty means and can't be expected to perform it.

When you give rights to animals, you may as well start giving rights to rocks.


@ 25 (Charlie) 28, 31 We are omivores (look at your own teeth in a mirror!) However, unlike (as far as we know) the other animals we are (supposed to) have morals & ethics. So, I have no intentione, ever of giving up on "meat" ... but: I have no intention of ever, if possible eating anything that was cruelly kept, or wasn't killed as quickly & painlessly as possible. Which means being creful about whom you buy your non-vegetable foodstuffs from. See {NOTE} It can be done, but it is easier in some areas than others. As heteromeles @ 31 says: "We can do better". Not only that, we should do better.

Nojay @ 41 That was a joke, in exptionally bad taste, & monumental ignorance .... I hope?

{NOTE:} E.G. Our local butcher has known individually-sourced meat supplies. [Hint: DO NOT buy meat at/from a supermarket, ever!] and our local fishmonger is a stall-offshooot of their inshore fishing near the Goodwins.


Reading the re-issue of The Bloodline Feud I only just noticed that the first line was (something along the lines of) "The sky was the colour of a dead laptop screen..." Bit of an homage there ;)


In a related question, do you ever answer the question as to whether at least some of the crew in "Bit Rot" made it? The ending was ... ambiguous.

Good story, though. Thank you.


I'm trying to remember, is cyberspace or any kind of matrix-style simulated environment also technologically impossible in this setting? It makes a soda can starship livable in Accelerando but without it the outer system tortureships in Saturn's Children are, well, torture.


Actually, what you describe is how to destroy any irrigation system, and I strongly don't recommend it.

You're right, trees suck up more water per unit mass than do humans. That much is correct.

Then the water transpired from the leaves goes back into the atmosphere, which gets more humid. If there is sufficient water, this water turns into clouds and rains back down. This is what causes much of the rain in the Amazon and other tropical areas. Absent the plants making clouds, there isn't rain, and you get desertification. The lesson here is that you have to see where the water goes after it leaves the tree.

Then there's the bigger problem: siltation of your precious waterworks. Woody plants are really good at slowing infiltration into the soil and rock aquifers. Bare dirt isn't. Water hitting bare doesn't just run off, it causes erosion. If you denude the slopes above a canal, you will have mudslides, which will clog up your streams and canals, and you will have no drinkable water whatsoever, plus an enormous amount of work rebuilding your system.

I've seen this happen in Los Angeles. Chaparral is much maligned in California, but I've seen health chaparral absorb ten inches of rain over a 36 hour period, without any slides at all. All the springs started running, and it was very, very, wet. Conversely, recently burned hillsides start sliding after a few inches of rain.

Fortunately, a number of municipalities know this, which is why they have forests on their watersheds to insure a steady supply of water. AFAIK, this is true for New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego, although in the later two cases, there isn't enough rainfall to water their populations no matter how well it's used.


The problem with transpired moisture forming clouds is that it usually rains somewhere else; if you're really desperate for fresh water and really unfortunate it will be out at sea.

As for ground cover, it doesn't have to be trees -- peat bogs will work very well, they conserve moisture at ground level and don't actively pump it up into the atmosphere, and they don't encourage mudslides. They also don't burn like buggery every year unlike forests. I think it's Colorado that's getting fried at the moment, it was Texas a couple of years ago as I recall. Can't remember the last time a peat bog got dry enough to even start smouldering in Scotland here.


Getting hard to distinguish perverse ignorance from trolling here...

You're right that transpired moisture can rain on the ocean, provided the ocean is directly downwind. Since we were talking about mountains originally, we have to talk about adiabatic cooling, which means air cooling as it goes over the mountain crest, shedding the rain on top of the same mountain that you want to denude of forest. In other words: mountain+forest=clouds on top of forested mountains, and the rain comes back down the mountain. This is why most of the Hawaiian islands have clouds around the mountain peaks, even though they're at the same latitude as Saudi Arabia and have deserts on their leeward sides.

Peat bogs are great sponges that form in former lakes and marshes, so you don't see too many of them in mountains (I actually have seen them, but they're pretty small). There are two problems with bogs. One is that they don't have roots, so they don't hold slopes worth a damn. Worse, they have a lot of polyuronic acid, which is great at sequestering nutrients. This cold, acid, nutrient-absent environment is why bogs are so very good at preserving things like bodies for millennia.

Finally, dry peat burns extremely well (note there are two links here, one to Indonesia and one to Siberia), and if you look up peat fires, you'll find that they are, in fact, far worse than the Colorado fires you mentioned. They burn underground, can last for years (fires in Indonesia apparently have burned continuously since 1997, and charred an area they size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, probably repeatedly)., AFAIK, they are second only to coal mines fires in terms of difficulty extinguishing them. Reportedly, the Indonesian peat fires (sparked in part by people draining groundwater and getting stupid clearing the forest) add more carbon to the air than Germany does every year.

So, no, wrong again on all counts. My apologies to the moderators for feeding a potential troll.


I think it's safe to say Nojay is not a troll.

It's fine to lecture, and don't presume malice unless it's demonstrated, please.

(I'm not a climatologist, although I do play one for the chinchilla, so I'm largely enjoying the education.)


Given that nojay is claiming to be in Scotland, I'm suprised he has never heard of Bord na Móna existing mainly to extract & sell burning peat. There was even the project, devised by the eccentric genius-designer O. V. S. Bullied to build a Turf-burning steam locomotive ... the prototype worked quite well, actually!

As for nojay's comments re water circulation, it's obvious he has either been lied to by someone else, or that he is profoundly ignorant of the various cycles operating in our ecosphere. Neither of which is a "good thing". Oh, &, of course lonely mountains, like the Hawaiian islands generate their own weather, plus there is a compression effect where mountains come close to the sea [ That's one reason why Ben Nevis or Mount Washington in New Hampshire get such violent & disparate weather conditions ] ... a web-search shows I've mentioned this before, a long time ago. It's called, IIRC the "Mahasserenberg effect", but my spelling may be wrong, there ... You might want to check something called the "Humboldt Profile", as well.


I think it's safe to say Nojay is not a troll.

He's not a troll, but he is an engineer, with the usual cognitive biases of that profession.


I'm an engineer, of sorts, so he doesn't even have that excuse! He should, automatically, understand the existence of interlinked systems-with-feedback, shouldn't he? /snark


The sky was the color of Microsoft's contribution to the collection of four letter acronyms.


Human civilization is fairly toxic just now: slavery is doing quite well thank you, in some of its most pernicious forms, vicious internecine conflict is common on all continents except Antarctica, and we seem to be heading back into a period of proxy warfare like that of the 1950s to 80s. The most common class of mobile robots are designed for military applications, and within the next few years I predict the second most common will be sexbots. Sounds like the civilization that spawned Freya and her kin to me.


Any society that has a single concept of rights, giving them fully to one class of beings and not at all to all others is massively broken. We need to be able to deal reasonably with children, who must have rights different from adults, and in fact may need to be given rights that adults can't have, and must be given rights that protect them from abuse or neglect. The same applies to mentally & emotionally disabled people (which class may include old people with physical or mental complications of age), but applies differently depending on whether the disability is temporary or permanent. Rights may or may not be reciprocal; making them so out of principle is a very bad idea.


Getting hard to distinguish perverse ignorance from trolling here...

Similar feelings here. Nojay is not only an engineer, but also an urbanite. I know you're some sort of "environmental scientist" but even so "no generalisation is true, not even this one".

Using your mapping software of choice, find "Barpa Langass" or "Langass Lodge" on "North Uist". Let me direct you to the hill they're on the side of. I've fallen into a sphagnum (sp; I've never typed the word before) bog about 2.5 feet deep on the peak of said hill. So bog can stick to at least gentle slopes.

Also, here in NW Scotland, the process for burning peat is well-defined:- 1) Dig it out in late April through mid-June. 2) Leave the dug peat bricks to try until about October. 3) Take them home and build your peat stack. 4) Hope they'll finish drying out so that you can burn them from November through March.


As a mostly analog meat-sack, it's gonna take me a while to get into this universe, but I'm looking forward to it.



/feed troll

One of my favorite bumper stickers is "Vegetarians Taste Funny".

/feed troll


"I'm not feeling so good. My lunch disagreed with me."

"Oh dear."

"The cow was a vegetarian."



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 12, 2013 11:09 AM.

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