Synopsis: Joe, a burned-out ex code monkey, runs a „hand raised, not vat-grown“ farm together with Maggie, a PTSDed ex soldier, in the second half of 21st century.
A rogue farm trespasses their estate – that’s a self-sustaining, biomorphed conglomerate of six humans into one body. It wants to sell brains to them so that it can finance its transport to Jupiter.
Joe‘s neighbor farm had a similar problem some years ago, and the danger is that the rogue farm builds „stage trees“: a biological construct invented by Larry Niven where trees build enough nitrate to launch a body into space. The launch would devastate acres around and destroy Joe‘s farm. Joe needs to act.
Review: Stross builds immensely dense settings, and one can easily be washed away by unexplained technobabble. The great thing is that all this information is logically fitting into the invented world, and part of the fun can be to solve the scientific riddles. This differentiates him from many authors where technobabble is just background noise without further meaning, creating a special SF atmosphere. Here, it is integral part of the story: the chemical transformation of stage trees to rocket fuel, the Gauss gun driving off the farm, the uplifted talking dog, the jammer to disable tiny police bugs, and many other elements which draw a highly innovative and plausible near future.
But the story wouldn’t be as great if it were only about setting. There are also the three main protagonists – while the rogue farm‘s needs are understandably and strangely relatable for the reader, one can identify far more easy with the two humans Joe and Maddie, their relation and development within the story. I always liked adult protagonists, and Stross delivered a superb job with those characters. Additionally, he brought in Bob, Joe‘s dog, as a side kick – and I had to laugh when there was time for some Man-Dog activity, like smoking weed in the kettle.
The story’s plot develops over a perfect tension arc with some interesting twists involving the neighbors and Maddie, while delivering enough clues so that the resolution is not exactly predictable but logical and funny at the same time. Yes, it’s a post-human future, and Stross builds upon that.
I think, this is the best example of the author’s remarkable skill to entertain while keeping up a tense narration – one cannot simply skip sentences.
Recommended for advanced SF readers interested in near future post-human SF.