However, I do feel that Stross' earlier novels are very good. So much so that I actually did an interview with him for Socialist Review many moons ago. Somehow, I'd not read Glasshouse, a slightly earlier novel, and I picked it up yesterday hoping it was more like the older ones and less like Saturn's Children.
Glasshouse is set far in the future. A universe networked by gates that allow instantaneous travel and the duplication of matter, including people. It is a universe that's been ravaged by enormous conflicts. As information became increasingly important to civilisation, wars became more than one lot of humans trying to kill other humans. So part and parcel of future war is censorship, viruses and data deletion.
All this is a background to explain why our hero, Roger, finds himself in a bar without many memories. Clearly he's been involved in the war, but for some reason he's had his memories wiped. Roger is encouraged, as part of his therapy to enter a new experimental habitat. Here inhabitants will live as though they were in small town America, crica the late 20th century. This means a transformation of customs, ideas and technology. It means learning to wear ridiculous high-heeled shoes (as Roger becomes Reeve in this experimental world) and it means learning that peer pressure can be an enormously powerful force.
Naturally, Stross doesn't simply leave us here. Though part of the fun in the novel is seeing how people from the far future might react to a world were women and men aren't equal. A past were monogamy is a deeply engrained part of society when their own society has the opposite. Interestingly, this attitude towards adultery leads to one of the more shocking episodes in the novel, when the scientists realise that they've got it very very wrong.
Such contrasts between old and new are a staple of time-travel stories, and great fun. Stross turns the level up by introducing a sinister backdrop to this apparently innocent scientific experiement.
Certainly this is one of Stross' better books. There's enough technological wizardry to get the geeks excited and enough playing around with sexuality to excite those who like this sort of thing in their SF. Mostly I enjoyed the tongue in cheek critique of 20th century capitalism, and the way that a cleverly constructed set of "goals" and "aims" could, through psychological manipulation and peer pressure lead to a social system that controls itself, while mimicing the modern world. The fact that this is all set in a giant glasshouse prison is a wonderful joke at the expense of us all. I wonder if we can get out?
Stross - Saturn's Children
Stross - The Atrocity Archives
Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky