A divided character explores brave new worlds…

Here’s a re-post of my Irish Examiner piece on Alastair Reynolds’s latest novel (nice to see it quoted on the book’s Amazon page too!). It got a little truncated in the paper (that’s just the business; sometimes an article is needed quickly to fill a slot and so something longer is cut down) but this is the full piece as submitted.

On the Steel BreezeOn the Steel Breeze
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £16:99
Review: Val Nolan

Chiku Akinya is a woman literally at odds with herself. The protagonist of Alastair Reynolds’s follow-up to last year’s Blue Remembered Earth has undergone a process of “triplication”; she has been cloned, twice, and all three trade memories even as their own experiences mould them into different people. Chiku-Yellow remains on Earth, living a life devoid of glory. Chiku-Red ventures alone into deep space and is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Chiku-Green joins a migratory caravan of “holoships”, vast generational craft hollowed out of asteroids and flung away from Earth at relativistic velocities to carry millions of people to other solar systems.

One world in particular, the planet Crucible, shows signs of “something irrefutably alien,” the handiwork “of directed, tool-using intelligence”, and it is there Chiku-Green hopes to make her mark. Yet the holoship inhabitants have maxed out their engines to shave a century off their travel time and, in a fit of hubris, have bet on solving the “slowdown problem” en route. It was not a wise decision.

Worse, Chiku-Yellow has discovered that the images of Crucible – the motivating factor behind Humanity’s new “cooperation and common purpose” – may not correspond to reality. Unravelling the mystery involves collaboration with Chiku-Green, and the time-lag caused by interstellar distances allows the author to drive this tightly-plotted story forward with effective, decades-long scene-changes.

While the experience is enriched by knowledge of Blue Remembered Earth (Chiku’s relatives, for instance, as well as her family’s history with elephants, here used to uncanny effect by Reynolds), On the Steel Breeze functions well as an independent story. Moreover, it is a stronger novel than its predecessor. There is a palpable depth of feeling to the experiences and sacrifices of each Chiku, with Reynolds transcending the cold Gothicism of his early writing. The ex-astrophysicist now describes, say, the loss of a loved one with the same raw immediacy through which he brings his realistic technobabble to life.

Longstanding fascinations also remain, chief among them being Reynolds’s interest in malignant software entities. This novel gives us “Arachne”, a rogue intelligence infecting the “Mechanism”, an omniscient network overseeing all law and human safety. “There’s almost nothing she can’t influence” including, Chiku realises with a growing sense of dread, the “Providers”, massive machines humanity relies on to build cities and harbours and which they have sent ahead of them to tame Crucible.

But Arachne is not the only one who is “deeply distributed”. While Chiku-Yellow investigates the entity’s presence around Earth, Chiku-Green braves the knotty political climate of the holoship caravan to unlock the truth about Crucible before it is too late. Both strands offer plenty of well-earned twists, with Reynolds the kind of reliable, action-orientated writer who can make a chase through a dark basement just as exciting as a clandestine launch of an experimental spacecraft.

Most engaging of all is Chiku’s private journey to understand herself: “Birth and death frame a life, give it shape,” she learns. “Without that border it just becomes a sprawling mess. A thing with no edge, no definition, no centre”. Such moments imbue On the Steel Breeze with nuance and real emotional texture. They ensure the book is not merely a sequel, but instead a standalone adventure with genuine heart.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 2 November 2013 (p.16).

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