New Article in Science Fiction Studies: Hard Determinism and Hard Science in Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space Sequence

SFS 137I’m delighted to have a new article about Welsh novelist Alastair Reynolds in the current issue of the academic journal Science Fiction Studies issue #137 (Vol. 46, Part 1, March 2019, pp.63-81). Here is the abstract:

This article examines Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space sequence (with a focus on the trilogy Revelation Space [2000], Redemption Ark [2002], and Absolution Gap [2003]) as an intricate working-through of philosophical questions associated with the implications of free will and current understandings of quantum mechanics, a series of experiments conducted through the medium of fiction by a talented novelist with a background in space science and astrophysics. It is argued that Reynolds’s fiction offers readers a credible compromise between the determinism described by classical physics and the “mere randomness” implied by quantum mechanics. Specifically, the Revelation space sequence is shown to function as a laboratory of sorts, a successful translation of complex processes and theories from real life physics (particularly the “Closed Timelike Curves” described by David Deutsch) into a rich fictional tapestry that is itself underpinned by a contentious metaphysical debate over the primacy either of intuitively felt freedom or material determinism. In the process, Reynolds is shown to combine hard (that is realistic) science with an interrogation of hard determinism (the belief that every event derives from initial conditions), as well as of the so-called hard problem of consciousness (simply put: where does consciousness come from?).

Do get in touch if you would like to read a copy of the article.

On  related note, I also recently contributed the entry on Alastair Reynolds to Aliens in Popular Culture (eds. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn), a great new volume that your library should definitely get a copy of!


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Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Is This Alastair Reynolds’s Most Political Novel?

Elysium Fire coverElysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds is a Brexit novel. Not in the sense of, say, how Dave Hutchinson’s Europe books (2014, 2015, 2016) captured the zeitgeist of the populist, Balkanizational energies which prefigured the referendum. Or not in the way literary fiction like Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) uses the referendum aftermath as a backdrop for the relationship between characters. No, Elysium Fire is more focused than that, explicitly concerned as it is with voter manipulation in a society that prides itself on abiding by ‘the will of the people’ (158) and offering us a villain who, with shades of so many prominent Brexiters, is the scion of privilege rather than ‘the common man he makes out’ to be (15). In the process, Reynolds tackles the inherent inconsistencies of the Brexit movement specifically, as well as, in a more general sense, the manner by which voters making bad choices are the Achilles’ heel of otherwise robust democratic systems. To the author’s credit, he does not settle for any easy answers…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

A superbly paced sequel to The Prefect (2007; now retitled Aurora Rising), Elysium Fire is essentially a police procedural – ‘A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency’ as the new series banner attests – set in the ‘Glitter Band’, a ring of ten thousand orbital habitats around the plant Yellowstone. Within the wider fictional history of Reynolds’s Revelation Space series, the Glitter Band is humanity’s Belle Epoque and home to about ‘one hundred million living souls’ (1). Each habitat is a world in its own right, each a place with its ‘own name and customs’ (1) yet all are united by a common belief in ‘Demarchist’ principles, in the sanctity of universal suffrage. Every Glitter Band citizen is equipped with neural implants which poll them constantly on ‘every conceivable matter’ and through which ‘the process of participation became as habitual as breathing’ (2). The integrity of this system is overseen by a limited force of ‘Prefects’ such as series protagonist Tom Dreyfus, an independent monitoring taskforce – part police, part tech-support – who might best be thought of as lightly armed returning officers.

Yet the accepted utopian conception of the Glitter Band – where ‘wealth and power were in almost limitless abundance’ (1) – has been upset. Public confidence in the Prefects and in the security of the Glitter Band has been damaged by the so-called Aurora Crisis of the preceding novel, and this has allowed for the emergence of other narratives. Specifically it has allowed room for a breakaway movement led by one Devon Garlin. As if to hammer home the Brexit comparison, our first glimpse of Garlin – ‘not the only figure associated with the breakaway movement, but he was by far the most influential and outspoken’ (14) – occurs in a kind of idealised version of rural England which could not be further removed from the realities of a high-tech and highly connected inter-orbital economy. He makes his initial bid at separatism on a habitat where ‘modest, stone-built homes dotted a gentle hillside, with smoke curling up from their chimneys. A waterwheel turned next to a mill, and off in the distance two woodcutters were at work with manual saws’ (11). ‘We surrendered our sovereignty,’ he tells the inhabitants of the Glitter Band as though reading from a UKIP manifesto (13). He maintains that separatist habitats are – stop me if you have heard this one before – ‘taking back control’ (13): ‘Control to manage their affairs in a way that suits their needs, not those of some distant, disconnected network of overseers’ (13). Thus Garlin sets himself up as ‘the voice of the people’ (15) and surrounds himself with ‘common thugs and bully-boys’ (287) as his ideas take ‘a toxic, ineradicable hold’ on the wider population (14).

I will resist the temptation to attribute aspects of Garlin’s background – the wealth, the private education, the supposed historic linage – to specific real-life figures from the Brexit movement but, suffice to say, the character emerges as a composite of the current British political rogue’s gallery. Yet Reynolds grants Garlin a far more interesting and compelling backstory than the Johnsons and Farages and Rees-Moggs of the world. Indeed, one could argue that Garlin, though despised by the Prefects as someone ‘who disseminates lies and half-truths for their own ends’ (129), is in fact Elysium Fire’s most engaging character and, rather than simple villain, is a true tragic antagonist compelled by a mix of idealism and circumstances beyond his control. This is never clearer than in the strand of the novel which follows his childhood (on a landed estate, of course) growing up with his brother Caleb in a brilliantly warped re-imagining of the Cain and Abel story (pleasantly eschewing a one-to-one match-up for a remix of elements such as each brother making sacrifices of sorts to prove themselves; one being favoured by the god-like powers guiding them; a visible mark set upon one who is exiled after a fashion, and so on). Reynolds transforms this straightforward story into a rich and multi-layered personal history for Garlin, complicated by instances of targeted amnesia and, in Brexiter fashion, a conviction that he recalls an almost mythological version of history (in this case the near legendary ‘Amerikano’ era of early interstellar colonisation). These inconstancies are eventually unsustainable for the character, who must in the end confront himself – in the most direct sense imaginable – when it is revealed that Julius is actually Caleb who has had his memories rewritten by the real Julius.

Such is the division and confusion of Garlin’s true self (echoing divided characters found elsewhere in Reynolds’s work such as the Ness sisters of 2016’s Revenger, Tanner Mirabel in 2001’s Chasm City, or the Chiku Akinya clones of 2013’s On the Steel Breeze) that, by Elysium Fire’s conclusion, even the identification of Julius and Caleb has been thrown into doubt as the separatist finds ‘an ending of sorts’ (391) in a union with his brother, their very bodies merging in a reckoning which is both as ambiguously ironic as it is ironically inevitable. For the reader, such irony has perhaps been foreshadowed by the chosen names (which are in fact his two middle names) of the novel’s separatist-in-a-time-of-Brexit: a merging of Devon, a county in southwest England, and Garlin, a commune in south-western France. The result is a character constructed, fittingly, to perform double duty. On the one hand Garlin, uncovering his true identity in the pursuit of his breakaway agenda, comes to embody the perceived dissolution of personal and national narrative certainty which some have glimpsed behind the Brexit movement. On the other hand, his very name announces the inescapability of blended European identity to the reader from the outset. In this way Garlin provides the link between the political allegory of the novel’s B-plot – the separatist movement – and its more recognisably science fictional A-plot, an investigation into a spat of citizens’ heads melting down (if ever there was a metaphor for the Brexit campaign…) as neurological implants malfunction across the Glitter Band. In both cases the crime is the tampering with flaws in the fundamental and supposedly inviolable machinery of democracy, that being in the philosophical sense – the idea that democracy can only be preserved if it chooses self-preservation – and in the actual machinery emplaced inside the brains of citizens.

Within the Glitter Band, democratic participation is conducted through a cranial implant known as the ‘Voi kernel’. The device is named after its creator Sandra Voi, the founder of Demarchist society and, not unimportantly, the ancestor of Julius Devon Garlin Voi and his brother Caleb. Aware that ‘true democracy embodies the possibility of its own dissolution’ (158), Voi granted herself and her descendants the ability to ‘guide the hand of democracy, to keep it from undoing itself’ or ‘from making choices it might come to regret’ (158). Voi intended such interventions to be ‘limited to marginal ballots, where a one or two percent shift is all that’s needed’ (184). It is this concept of ‘intervention’, along with the question of who should be allowed to intervene, which underpins the ethical quandary (of which Garlin is but a symptom) at the heart of the novel. The dishonesty within the Voi kernel, within the apparatus of democracy itself, may act, counter-intuitively, as a corrective inversion of the flaw within the righteous idea of democracy, but it is nonetheless a criminal act. Elysium Fire is clear that a ‘guiding hand’ such as Voi’s is a bad idea, offering examples of the corruption and moral bankruptcy of Julian and Caleb’s parents, as well as instances of how the brothers themselves abuse their privileged access, but nonetheless – and this is the uncomfortable but brilliantly executed slight-of-hand which Reynolds orchestrates in Elysium Fire – it is difficult for the reader not to speculate about how easily such a domestic intervention might have spared Britain from its current predicament. Certainly the figures given in the novel – again, a shift of ‘one or two percent’ – imply a certain preoccupation with the contemporaneous Brexit vote carried by a mere 1.9%. Changing such a result would, of course, have been fraud. It would have been unethical. It would in fact have been immoral. But, through the possibilities inherent in the Voi kernel’s backdoor, Elysium Fire nonetheless leaves even the most principled of readers considering if such intervention would have been correct?

That the question of Brexit should so preoccupy Reynolds in his first major work since the referendum is not surprising. After all, before he was a full-time author he spent almost fifteen years working for the European Space Agency in The Netherlands and so it is hardly a leap to wonder if the anger Prefect Dreyfus experiences towards Garlin might be a reflection of the author’s own feelings at the damage being done by Brexit’s ‘shallow populism’ (289)? Yet as a novel rather than a work of political theory or moral instruction, there is no onus on Elysium Fire to offer actionable solutions to the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. If anything, the novel’s implication that good old-fashioned police work can temper the worst ramifications of ‘populist, rabble-rousing nonsense’ (135) is perhaps too naïve for our current reality (in Dreyfus, Reynolds offers a robust investigative response, a strategy of following the shadowy money funding the breakaway movement, but one sees in real life how ineffectual such a response can too often be). For Dreyfus may be able to resolve his latest emergency by forcing Garlin to confront the inconsistencies in his identity and hence in his philosophy, but one suspects that real life Leave voters cannot be so easily convinced. The Brexit process they have set in motion has already proven too vulnerable to ‘misjudgements… over-reaction on both sides. Regrettable acts. Provocation and counter-provocation. Wiser minds will attempt to slow the fragmentation, even turn it back. But that wheel, once started turning, will not be easy to stop’ (366).


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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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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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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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