Back in the mists of time (this would be circa 2006) I wrote "Halting State". And because the pitch sounded a bit risky, my editor at Ace said, "we'll take it—on condition it's half of a two book deal, and the other half is a nice, safe, bankable space opera."
Fast forward to 2007 and I'm trying to get started. And I am spinning my wheels. Because the words on the contract say ESCHATON 3, and I really don't want to go there (see Crib Sheet's passim: this was around the time I was working out that the Eschaton universe was broken beyond my ability to repair).
What to do ...?
I tentatively emailed my editors (Orbit were on board for this one, too), and told them I had a problem. "Can you cope with a non-Eschaton space opera?" I asked. And after a while, the smoke from the Vatican chimney turned white. So I began looking for a theme.
Firstly, I concluded that the big problem I'd had with the Eschaton universe was the complexity added by two interacting tropes—the Singularity, and causality violation (an unavoidable side-effect of faster than light travel. A side effect of causality violation is that you quite possibly end up with time loop logic, which has some really alarming implications if you can figure out a way to map this onto a human-equivalent or faster AI. The easiest way out of the trap is to adopt the Novikov self-consistency principle and throw FTL under a train.
This doesn't totally rule out AI. We have an existence proof for human intelligence as an apparently computational process: it's called the human neural connectome. But it's fiendishly complex, not terribly hackable, and tends to function best when coupled up to an i/o device called "a human body".
If we ditch FTL and forms of AI that aren't based on simply emulating a human neural network and its peripherals, if we play by the Mundane science fiction rule-book (as I wanted to), then we run into some other problems with the design of a space operatic universe. If you've been following my blog for some years you will have noted my periodic forays into the problems of space colonization. Bluntly, canned monkeys are not suitable for a life of gamboling among the stars. Not even close. We tend to die within double-digit seconds if exposed to vacuum. The high energy cosmic rays encountered outside the Van Allen belt would deliver what NASA consider to be a lifetime radiation dose (raising the probability of cancer by up to 10%) in a matter of 3-6 months. Our eyeballs change shape, we risk retinal detachment, our bones begin to dissolve, and our muscles atrophy. All of these problems can be avoided if we bring along massive amounts of radiation shielding (10 metres of water in all directions will do just fine) and provide a spinning habitat for artificial gravity ... but space is vast, and the amount of energy it takes to shove such massive structures around between planets is getting into silly money territory, and that's before you start looking at the minimum biosphere problem and the question of how big an interplanetary colony needs to be in order to be self-supporting (hint: it needs to be able to maintain not only manufacturing and life support facilities, but a fully-fledged tertiary education system and facilities for looking after the too-young-to-work and the too-old-to-work—the answer turns out to be "huge", for nation-state values of huge).
And once you get there, there's no "there" there. No green fields of Mars, no swamps of Venus. You're stuck staring at the inside of your spacesuit visor, smelling of sweat, stale farts, and seared steak knowing that you're one micrometeoroid strike away from sudden death ...
Nope. Nothing operatic about it.
But then a serendipitous coincidence happened: I looked at the calendar and saw that it was 2007—the centennial of Robert A. Heinlein's birth. And the imp of the perverse whacked me on the back of the head with a stuffed bull's penis and screamed in my ear, "why not write a Heinlein tribute novel?"
Now, I have a love/hate relationship with Robert A. Heinlein's work. I am not American; much of his world-view is alien to me. I did not grow up with his 1950's juvenile novels, and I don't like them much. Some of his work is deeply, irredeemably flawed and should probably be taken out back and shot. (Does anyone have a kind word to say for "Sixth Column" or "Farnham's Freehold"? I'll try: 6thC was written to an outline supplied by famously racist editor John W. Campbell, at a point when Heinlein needed the money, and he is alleged to have watered down the racism as far as he could; as for FF, here was a privileged white male from California, a notoriously exclusionary state, trying to understand American racism in the pre-Martin Luther King era. And getting it wrong for facepalm values of wrong, so wrong he wasn't even on the right map ... but at least he wasn't ignoring it.) Ahem. Nevertheless, it's impossible to ignore Heinlein unless you're going to ignore all American SF, and as that's my main market and my main publishers are American, that's not an option.
So I decided to pick a Heinlein novel and do a homage to it. One of my two favourites would do: that narrowed it to "Glory Road" (not really an option because: space opera contract) or "Friday" (problematic, later work showing flashes of earlier brilliance but impossible to read now without much head-clutching or making excuses for the author's lack of a language with which to tackle issues of racism and child abuse, which is what underpins that book). This made things both easier and harder, because "Friday" is a late period work—distinctly different from his early and mid-phase novels (although it was something of a return to his mid-period form).
Then everything came together in my head in a blinding flash of enlightenment, thuswise:
I was going to write a late period Heinlein tribute novel, because everybody (I'm looking at you, Scalzi; also John Varley, Spider Robinson, Mike Ford, Steven Gould ...) else who does Heinlein tributes does early Heinlein. And if you want to stand out, the best way to do it is to look which way the herd is stampeding in, then go somewhere else.
Heinlein in his dirty-old-man phase seemed to have a nipple obsession. Worse: an obsession with nipples which, as piloerectile tissue, made an implausible noise—"spung!" Thus, the word "spung!" becomes the centerpiece of any successful late-period Heinlein pastiche.
We in the reality-based community are aware that real human nipples do not do "spung". But under what circumstances might a nipple go "spung"? Well, if it was some sort of pressure-relief valve on a robot, that sound wouldn't be totally implausible.
Nipples ... on a robot. Why would a robot need nipples? The answer seemed obvious: it was a sex robot. A sex robot in the shape of a Heinleinian omni-competent and beautiful yet sexually submissive heroine. (There is nothing politically correct about Heinlein: he was a product of a different age.)
However, sex robots don't have adventures. Their raison d'etre requires them to spend most of the time indoors, and much of it staring at the ceiling. This was not, at first sight, a suitable protagonist for a plot-driven novel.
Heinlein said that there were three standard plots (speaking very loosely and in practice contradicting his own dogma): Boy Meets Girl, The Brave Little Tailor, and the Man Who Learned Better. So I literally rolled a dice, and came up with the Man Who Learned Better. This made things worse: my sex robot protagonist had to go places and see stuff. But then another idea suggested itself to me.
A society that runs on robot slaves who are, nevertheless, intelligent by virtue of having a human neural connectome for a brain, is a slave society: deeply unhealthy if not totally diseased. I decided to shove the slider all the way over towards terminally diseased (I am not a fan of slavery). Some background: we are in a population peak right now, but undergoing a demographic transition to low birth rate/low death rate on a global scale. By the middle of the 22nd century the human population will, if current trends persist, have dropped back to what it was around the beginning of the 20th. The biosphere will have been badly damaged if we don't get our worst habits under control, but in the long term it's a self-solving problem. More to the point, automation will have deprived most of us of jobs: either we find a way to transition to a society that values people for who they are rather than what they work at, we'll be in deep trouble.
The human society underpinning "Saturn's Children" got into bad trouble, relying on robot slaves as labour and disappearing up its own arse in the pursuit of virtual luxury. The poor had enough to eat, homes to dwell in, and unlimited internet porn or its equivalent: the rich had palaces and the supernormal sexual stimulus of robots like Freya. (We already see supernormal stimuli around us today, in the form of the ubiquitous photoshoppery applied to photographs of stars and models: take this trend and extrapolate until sex with ordinary humans looks icky.) The result is a long term demographic collapse followed by effective extinction ... which is barely noticed by human society, which shrugs and continues to obey its orders.
They made it as far as planting flags on Mars, and for a couple of centuries ran a small town on the Moon. Then they went home, and died. Their successor species, who are human in all psychological respects except for the pressing legal issue of them being classified as
slaves robots, keep on going. Some of the robots execute as property of human-less shell companies, giving them legal autonomy: they rapidly re-purpose the vicious and oppressive legal framework they were bequeathed to build a new slave-owning aristocracy with plantations on Mars and palaces afloat in the stratosphere of Venus.
As for our sex robot, she came off the production line a year after the last human being died. She spent decades in a crate in a warehouse, before being reactivated because of her training to play a musical instrument. This is why she gets to wander around the solar system, and to gradually realize that what she had been violently conditioned to believe was her right and proper destiny is a hollow and unattainable lie that, moreover, is diametrically opposed to her pursuit of life, liberty, and her own happiness.
(There's also a caper plot involving her template-matriarch, a lethal assassin—courtesan-turned-assassin is one of the oldest tropes in the drama playbook—other interactions with servants behind the throne, a Grand Tour, and an Evil Plan to Take Over The World (all the worlds! This is the 24th century solar system, after all!) by resurrecting a long-extinct Sealed Evil In A Can (that would be us, folks). But that's all secondary to the real plot.)
Other random debris relating to "Saturn's Children": I tried to play by the Mundane SF rules, bending them as little as possible. Human neural connectome in a can is a bit of a stretch. I went for robots with eukaryotic cell-analogs made using synthetic biology rather than Drexler-style magic nano-assemblers: there's no grey goo, they're subject to radiation damage, and most mechanocyte cells aren't self-replication capable. Fusion power is available, but based on what we can expect to see by the end of this century: gigantic, fiddly, complicated hunks of machinery that sit in huge power stations or provide base load for the much-slower-than-light colony starships, not magic Mr. Fusion machines.
Yes, there is a hideous pun with a 100-page setup that references "The Maltese Falcon". You were not imagining it. I hang my head in shame.
Who landed on Mars first? That would be China, followed by India. The third, ill-fated expedition was the Indonesian one. (By the time humans got to Mars in the Freyaverse, the USA was well into the post-imperial hangover.) After that, nationalism got more than somewhat passé.
"Why did you pick such an awful cover?" (US edition—the UK cover is a perfectly reasonable example of genre-specific artistic tagging). Hint: my editor at Ace is an old hand who worked on "Friday" at Del Rey and had something to do with the Michael Whelan cover.
Am I ever going to write more about Freya? No, but see Bit Rot for a hint about what became of her subsequently.