It's a common literary device to frame a story around a person searching for their purpose in the wake of some profound change. A soldier, in peace time. A police officer, thrown off the force. A big shot corporate type, blacklisted. A sex robot, in a post-human extinction solar system.
Well, some executions are a little more out there than others, I suppose.
Charles Stross, the author of Saturn's Children, has denied any responsibility for the North American cover art, but it's hard to imagine why. Quite frankly, it's pretty much perfect, as far as judging a book by its cover goes; this is a book about a female sex robot who gets caught up in a high-stakes covert affair, so a busty woman with purple hair in a catsuit holding a mysterious orb pretty much tells you from the start if this book is for you or not. If you don't like the cover, you probably won't like the book.
Yeah, the cover is actually slanted that way. I have no idea why.
More seriously, Saturn's Children is a first-person narrative about Freya, a female sexbot only activated after humanity went extinct, and her search for any kind of purpose in her life. Programmed and conditioned exhaustively to consider the sexual satiation of the human male as the only thing that matters, Freya is understandably at loose ends with no human males on order. Morose and aimless, Freya begins the book by contemplating suicide, a not-uncommon fate for her model, only to find her will to live rekindled by a run-in with a particularly bloody-minded aristocrat and her tame-killer bodyguards. In desperate need of escape from Saturn's moons, Freya takes up a courier job from some 'legitimate businessmen' that promises a ticket to Mars, and sets her on a collision course with powerful interests, vengeful assassins, mad scientists and a plot to up-end the entire robot society of the solar system.
While Saturn's Children is no great book by any stretch of the imagination, it does do some things differently enough to be worth a mention. The most particular is the way robot society is organized post-humanity. The robots were, of course, programmed to abide by humanity's laws, but since humanity never extended legal personhood to them before passing on, the robots are left in a legal limbo; all the institutions of the various states still exist, carried out by diligent robots, but there are no governments, no means for updating the law, and no protections for the rights of robots. One of the more clever bits of Stross' future, particularly timely given the recent Citizens United decision in the US, was the way the robots deal with that last issue. While robots aren't people, and can't claim human rights, they are legally qualified to establish corporate entities, which they can use to protect themselves by declaring themselves the legal assets of said corporation. It's something of a legal fiction, but it's enough to protect the middle-class robots from the predations of those who 'inherited' substantial sums from humans that granted them power of attorney, and have used their own, considerable corporate power to institute a vicious slave-state throughout the inner planets of the solar system.
My love of AI is certainly no secret around here, and it's that same love that actually left me feeling the most let-down by Saturn's Children. Yes, it makes perfect sense for the sentient robots of the inner system to be human-like. They were designed to function in human society, to interact regularly with human beings and to serve as stand-ins for humans as needed, after all. And some, like Freya and her sexbot sisters and the masterless butler-brothers of JeevesCo, had every reason to be as human-like as possible, given their very personal connection with humans. But honestly, it's a bit of a lacklustre portrayal of a society of robots in a post-human existence. The creators of these things may well have exceeded Tyrell Corporation's famous boast in Blade Runner, 'More Human Than Human'. Stross rarely does much with the fact that every 'person' in the book should be as customizable as a desktop PC, and the non-human robots are mostly consigned to the far reaches of the solar system, the Forbidden Cities of the Kuiper Belt and the like, meaning they play almost no role in the story. If you replaced the robots with cyborgs and the human extinction with a melding of humans and robots until there were no legally distinct human beings, you could pretty much tell the exact same story. It's not that it's bad, exactly, it's just that it's not as footloose and fancy-free as 'a tale of robots living in a post-human solar system' could have been.
But no, it's not a bad book. Like I said, it's not great, but it's still a very solid scifi chase story, with a bit of espionage and action thrown in for good measure. The plot is complicated enough that it feels overwhelming while you're reading, but Stross neatly ties everything together in the end, making sense of even some of the stranger quirks of behaviour the reader should have noted a few chapters previous. And if there isn't enough inventiveness in the robots, or the space travel for that matter (Stross has gone with the absolute most pessimistic predictions about its ultimate feasibility), Freya is a compelling enough character to keep you reading while she's alternately running, fighting, and screwing for her life.
What? I told you she was a sexbot; did you really think it wouldn't come up?