Journey to the ends of the universe recalls a classic tale

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Poseidon’s Wake
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; €28.50; ebook €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

There has always been a strain of Science Fiction concerned with exploring the human condition via journeys to faraway places. Star Trek is the obvious example, but the tendency is just as apparent in proto-SF such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, from secrets hidden in a “dusty-looking” copy of the latter to a prominent character tellingly named Swift, it is to that book, published almost three hundred years ago, that this latest interstellar adventure from Alastair Reynolds looks.

A follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth (2012) and On the Steel Breeze (2013), Poseidon’s Wake carries the story of the Akinya family forward several hundred more years while mostly fulfilling its promise to act as a stand-alone work. The Akinyas, the “movers and shakers of history”, are here represented by Goma, the biologist daughter of a disgraced physicist, and by her uncle Kanu, human ambassador to a Mars overrun by intelligent machines.

Gorma has dedicated her life to “Tantors”, genetically engineered elephants “with the resilience to survive in space”. Tantors possess consciousness, however Gorma has been unable to find a cure for cognitive decline in the herd. Kanu, meanwhile, is introduced to the reader on the day he dies. Revived by the machines, he is coerced by the robotic Swift into an investigation of a shared concern: “the larger narrative of his family – the things they had made, the events they had caused, the web of responsibilities they had inherited”.

A mishmash of Swift’s – the real Swift’s – ideas, filtered through the imagination of Reynolds, is apparent from the get-go. The flying island encountered by Gulliver finds its counterpart in a mobile, hollowed-out asteroid. Knowledge sans application, a characteristic of Gulliver’s Laputans, is echoed by the “Watchkeepers”, alien automata “so clever they forgot how to be conscious”. Later talking elephants take the place of talking horses and, if that was not enough to cement the homage, Reynolds grants his Swift a “face, outfit, and bearing approximating those of a young man of learning of the late eighteenth century”.

Yet where Jonathan Swift produced a satire of his genre, Reynolds is not necessarily ridiculing anyone. Unless, perhaps, you consider his dramatis personæ to be a needling of those who maintain Space Opera to be the domain of only white, male, heterosexual protagonists. Because even if that was not intentional, Reynolds’s focus here, as throughout the trilogy, on characters of African heritage and diverse sexualities offers an oblique comment on recent controversies in the SF community.

Thus with a nod to the past, Reynolds tells a contemporary story in a future that is very much his own. Gorma and Kanu’s travels lead them from the Martian robots to the Tantors to the “zombie-machine” Watchkeepers, but the literal elephants in the room are always the questions of self-awareness and cooperation. Each race possesses a different form of consciousness, a further contrast to the accepted norm, but, without being didactic about it, Reynolds demonstrates each – including humans – to be incapable of unlocking the novel’s tantalising secrets alone.

Concluding in a tense but beautifully imagined rescue mission reminiscent of writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Poseidon’s Wake is a novel unafraid to ask big questions about human nature and, for that matter, about the “truth of life’s fate in the cosmos”. The dubious prize which Gorma and Kanu chase is a typically Reynoldian esoteric mystery, yes, but the thoughts it provokes are sure to stay with the reader long after the novelty of elephants in spacesuits has “passed into the Remembering”.

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