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”.

___

Other posts you may enjoy:

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).

___

Other posts you may enjoy:

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.

___

Other posts you may enjoy:

%d bloggers like this: