Charles Stross is a name in science fiction that is relatively well-known. It doesn’t have quite the recognition of writers like China Mieville or Neil Gaiman, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of readers whose favorite literary genre is science fiction have at least heard of Stross, even if they haven’t actually read one of his works. Saturn’s Children is our first exposure to Charles Stross’ novels.
The easiest way to describe the impression given by Saturn’s Children is to compare it to a movie. It’s like seeing a wonderful, perfectly edited trailer that makes the film seem like something that absolutely must be experienced, only to find upon going to see the film it is disappointingly clunky and borderline uncomfortable to watch. The idea of a sex bot whose creators are long gone and thus she has to find a new career choice is interesting and amusing, but the novel is so awkward that it is a very unrewarding experience.
It doesn’t help that the main character is forced into strange sexual situations that come across as slightly misogynistic. Early on in the novel, she travels to Mercury aboard a strange travel device that actually has sex with her to keep her calm during the trip. It gives the impression that Stross is trying really hard to write a comedic novel, something like a slightly more eccentric Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but misses the mark by a whole lot. The writing itself is fine, but the novel on the whole feels like a total mess.
Being that Saturn’s Children was actually nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2009, it’s surprising to find the work to be so utterly disappointing. Apparently, the novel is intended as something of a tribute to the work of science fiction legend Robert Heinlein, whose work seems pretty overrated based on what we’ve read of his. Maybe Stross is similarly overpraised, or maybe Saturn’s Children just isn’t his finest hour. Either way, it will be a while before we read anything else of his.
Rating: 1.5 stars (of 5)
Short story collections as a rule are a bit more difficult to do well. On average, you’re relying on around a dozen stories to keep the reader’s interest, and one or two duds can really drop the overall thoughts on a collection. As it so happens, Daniel Powell‘s collection The Silver Coast has issues, but consistent quality of readability is not one of them.
All of the stories have some kind of science fiction element. Powell shines especially when dealing with post-apocalyptia, including a touching story about the few remaining survivors of a small town in a zombie apocalypse. Another tells of a man escaping prison to find his lost love in a post-nuclear world, not knowing one way or another if his partner even survived the disaster. This story in particular feels a bit too brief, however. If it were stretched to closer to a novella length Powell would have had better opportunity to highlight the troubles of the search and make the payoff a lot more satisfying.
Other stories, such as one about a man’s obsession with an old car he sees parked on the side of the road, have a good twist but don’t grab the imagination quite as vividly a the better parts of the collection. That said, Powell is a solid writer with good dialogue that moves things along, with his biggest strength being his ideas. Although not every story is brilliant, his ideas are consistently interesting enough to inspire continued reading.
Strangely enough, there are some stranged formatting problems in the eBook edition. The first few pages are nothing but weird tags that don’t register as anything but jumbled HTML on the basic Kindle. For the entirety of the collection, full empty lines are used between each paragraph, which doesn’t really come across well in a book such as this. If you can get past the formatting issues associated with the ebook (which we cannot verify are also present in the print edition), this is a strong collection. It seems that if Powell were to do a full length novel that gives him more time to build his characters and work through his wonderful ideas, he could write something really special. The Silver Coast and Other Stories is at the very least a readable and enjoyable collection, but has a few stories that stand out as borderline excellent.
Rating: 3.5 stars (of 5)