Hugo Nominees 2014: Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

neptunesbroodNeptune's Brood is the most painful book I've read in a long, long while. The prose isn't bad. The worldbuilding is incredibly in-depth. There's action and intrigue and space pirates and mermaids. But the execution of the story was so painful that I could barely force myself to read halfway through the book, let alone to the end.

Ostensibly, Neptune's Brood is about a financial historian named Krina, who's searching across the universe for her missing sister. As the novel opens, we're not told why she's hunting for her sister or why she might be missing, but eventually we learn what Krina has known all along: the two of them were tracking down the biggest fraud in history, trying to figure out what happened and collect any millions that may have gone unclaimed in the aftermath, and they angered the people involved along the way.

But Neptune's Brood isn't really about Krina. It's what I'm going to call "financial fantasy." It's all about a fictional financial situation. The financial instruments that are used. Their history. How they're abused. The problems that they cause. And this isn't just a background for a plot. This is the plot. The financial system is the protagonist of Neptune's Brood. It receives whole chapters of explanation and exploration. And hey, if speculatory financial systems in universe-sized economies are of interest, you might get a lot more out of this book than I did. But if you're looking for a novel, this isn't the place to turn.

Because, yes, there is a plot. Sort of. But Stross doesn't seem to care about it. It's constantly interrupted by massive info dumps about economics. It has no real structure or sense. The first person narration withholds information from the reader to create "intrigue," but it only creates frustration. Meanwhile, the prose style fluctuates wildly, the novel switches between first and third person even when our first person narrator is present in a scene, and information is repeated in an almost identical manner multiple times. The narrative makes some attempts to set itself up as a diary, or a historian's report, or something vaguely along those times, but it never bothers to keep up the conceit, to explain how the supposed narrator knows what happened in places she never was, with people she never communicated with. It's the most flimsy and inconsistent novel I've read in a really long time.

And yet the effort is clearly there. The world has a lot of depth and thought put into it. The effort was just in the wrong place. For example, Stross seems to love world-building. Really love world building. But he doesn't want to put anything in that world. Characterization, plot, emotion, compelling action... they're all a distant second to explaining the novel's setting, over and over again. We land on a new planet, and we get pages and pages and pages telling us about its politics, about its economics, about its uranium deposits and the exact technical terms for this kind of planet. We know more about a city where we'll spend thirty pages than we do about any of the characters.

I stubbornly stuck with the book to the end, not caring about the characters, not really knowing what their aims where, not caring too much about the mysteries, in the hope that the end would provide some great payoff. But spoiler alert: it doesn't. It doesn't even properly end. In the final two chapters, a few revelations are thrown out, and we end up in a space battle... which basically involves the protagonist saying "space battles are boring," the narration skipping over any action, and the novel ending so abruptly that it's almost as if the author had to wrap it up in ten seconds before his laptop battery died. Did characters live or die? What were the consequences of this dramatic turn of events? What even happened during this grand finale? Who knows? Who cares? The characters and the plot never really mattered, so they're dropped almost in mid-air, leaving the reader to stare at the blank page and wonder what on earth just happened.

And yet, this novel is nominated for a Hugo award. Because of name recognition? Because of the depth of the world building and economic thought? I don't know. Economics enthusiasts may enjoy this one, but as a novel, it fails almost entirely.