Novel of the Future Says Much About the Present

Didn’t get a chance to re-post this at the weekend, but here’s my review of the new Alastair Reynolds novel from last Saturday’s Irish Examiner:

Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £18.99
Review: Val Nolan

An intelligent, energetic mystery which manages to balance its deceptively straightforward style with a complex and thought-provoking vision of the future, Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth might just be the first great novel of the year. The fact that it is Science Fiction is incidental, for brimming with the optimism and gee-whiz wonder all too often absent from modern writing, this is a terrific book regardless of where it gets shelved.

Set in the mid-22nd century, the novel follows Geoffrey Akinya, scion of Africa’s most powerful family and a biologist studying elephant cognition in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. All Geoffrey wants is to be left alone, however his scheming, purse-string-holding cousins have different ideas. When loose ends arise in relation to the death of his grandmother, matriarch of ‘a business empire as wide as the Solar System’, the reluctant Geoffrey is tasked with investigating.

His journey begins on an Earth which has weathered war and climatic catastrophe to emerge as a utopia. But as with any perfect world, not all are happy to trade liberty for security. One of these is Geoffrey’s sister Sunday, with whom he conspires to unravel family secrets of epochal significance. A sculptor, Sunday has emigrated to the dark side of the Moon, to a ‘Descrutinized Zone’ where millions have chosen to live free from ‘dollar-eyed’ industrialists and ‘legislation made by stupid, short-sighted governments’.

Intentional or not, it is this strand of the novel which best exemplifies Science Fiction’s ability to comment on the present. While the Descrutinized Zone is never directly linked to the contemporary Occupy movement, the similarities are difficult to ignore: ‘It’s not all about being crypto-anarchists and throwing wild parties,’ Geoffrey is told. No, it’s about resisting corporate and governmental dominance of the individual; it’s about ‘creativity, the impulse to experiment, and the urge to test social boundaries’.

Reynolds too has chosen to push the limits of what’s possible, with much of the technology in Blue Remembered Earth – from space elevators to VASIMR propulsion – drawn from real proposals on the cutting edge of physics. A leading proponent of Hard (meaning ‘realistic’) Science Fiction, Reynolds provides a futuristic tune-up for everything from crime prevention to voicemail. His characters exist in an augmented reality, a plausible extrapolation from the ‘layers of distorting mediation’ implicit in our increasing reliance on smart phones and social media. Always interested in Artificial Intelligence, he equips this information space with exactly the kind of digital avatar we might someday be mining Facebook profiles to create, a software ‘construct’ of Grandmother Akinya who guides Geoffrey and Sunday on their quest.

Though the artificial persona here echoes the simulations present in earlier Reynolds work, Blue Remembered Earth adopts a warmer tone than the posthuman Gothicism of either his Revelation Space series or his steroidal update of Arthur C. Clark, 2005’s Pushing Ice. Characters like Geoffrey, particularly in his love of the elephant herd, serve to ground the story in the face of startling disclosures. Yes his grandmother’s trail leads towards the murky depths of trans-Neptunian space, but in his heart Geoffrey never really leaves Africa. As such, if Blue Remembered Earth has a natural home in any genre it is amongst novels about home, family, and responsibility.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 11th February 2012, p.17.

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