Thursday, January 1, 2015

Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds

As usual I'm starting the new year with a review of one of Alastair Reynolds' works. After writing a number of standalones, Reynolds began a new series with the publication of Blue Remembered Earth (2012). It is the first book in the Poseidon's Children trilogy. The second volume, On a Steel Breeze, has already been published and in October, Reynolds announced that he had a complete draft of the third volume. I guess we can expect that one to be published later in 2015. Blue Remembered Earth takes a bit of a different approach to science fiction than we've seen in Reynolds' older work. I guess it is not going to be universally loved among his fans but I thought it was a pretty good read.

Tanzania 2061. The legendary Eunice Akinya, the matriarch of the powerful Akinya family, has passed away at the age of 130. As her family convenes for her funeral, rifts among the children and grandchildren become apparent. Siblings Geoffrey and Sunday never wanted much to do with the family business or its wealth. Geoffrey is a biologist studying elephants, while Sunday pursues a career as a sculptor. It puts them at odds with their cousins Hector and Lucas for whom family and the family business is everything. When they ask Geoffrey to make a trip to the moon for them to settle a bit of unfinished business their grandmother left behind, he discovers the first piece of a puzzle that casts light on their Grandmother's final journey into space, more than sixty years ago.

The novel is a bit of a scavenger hunt in space. Eunice has left a lot of obscure hints that only someone of the family would be able to decipher. It keeps Geoffrey and Sunday busy for most of the novel. There are hints that there is more at stake than Eunice annoying her family from the grave however. Throughout the story Reynolds points out that humanity is on the brink. That there is an opportunity to make a great leap forward and that it will have to be done soon. It's the underlying message of the whole novel and probably what is going to tie the three books together.

Reynolds doesn't just limit it to technology, physics and space exploration either. Geoffrey for instance, is involved in research into what he calls the inner universe: research into the workings of the brain. Implants into the human brain are commonplace and thanks to them, external devices are no longer needed for communication. Everybody can be monitored and reached almost anywhere on Earth. Now, Geoffrey is taking on the next great challenge, making neural contact with another species.

This technology has another, some would say darker, side to it too. When faced with the upheavals of man-made climate change, radical solutions were implemented. Humanity could no longer afford to fight its wars or ignore the abuse heaped on the planet's ecology. Whole nations were emptied of people, research into more durable sources of energy was given priority, adaptable seawalls were created to hold back the rising water, and war, criminality and violence were ruthlessly rooted out by means that would be Big Brother's wet dream. Surveillance is inescapable and genetic engineering is employed to rid society of unwanted criminal impulses in the population. Reynolds' solutions to the problems the planet is facing are radical to say the least.

Where in previous books Reynolds focused on space exploration grounded in the hard sciences, this book takes a look at our planet that far exceeds the attention he has given to it in his earlier works. It feels a bit like the approach of Kim Stanley Robinson really. Reynolds is having a look at sweeping social changes, creating factions along ideological lines rather than geopolitical ones. National interests are still present but appear to be fading as humanity expands into the solar system.The novel is driving for change at a great many levels.

The Akinya family is from Africa. Reynolds is not too clear about their exact origin, old national boundaries are no longer relevant after all, but if I were to venture a guess I'd say Tanzania. Just how much has changed in the world can be seen just by looking at the setting. In the west Africa is still seen as a continent of warlords, dictators,  post-colonial conflict, disease and famine, while the spectacular economic development taking place there is hardly ever mentioned. The west doesn't really want to acknowledge their role in the mess left behind after decolonization, nor does it care for the ways in which the continent is trying to move beyond the past. War, disease and poverty notwithstanding, things are moving there and in Reynolds' story, the continent rises to prominence. Africa has become an economic powerhouse, the western nations are hardly mentioned in the novel at all. An optimistic view on Africa's future from a western author. I don't think I've come across science fiction like that before.

All this is mostly background to the story however, and I must admit, the novel is probably a bit too long for the story it contains. Unlike Robinson, Reynolds doesn't expose the readers to long sections on social developments, politics, religion or science. Most of the novel is taken up by the search conducted by Geoffrey and Sunday. It takes us to various places in the solar system and allows Reynolds to once again show that he is very good at writing science fiction set in space. The feel of Reynolds' descriptions of the moon or Mars can't quite cover for the somewhat unbelievable secret they take over 500 pages to unearth. Keeping a secret like that very violently clashes with the society Reynolds depicts in which everybody is monitored all the time.

The somewhat unbelievable plot is a bit of a shame as Reynolds outdoes himself with the two main characters. Characterization has never been the strong point of Reynods' novels but Geoffrey and Sunday are two of the best developed characters I've come across in this book. Their drive to make a name for themselves independent of their family's legacy drives many of their actions. It leads them to do rash things but also reflect on personal matters such as the loss of someone close to them and their place in the family to more philosophical topics as humanity's place in the universe.

Overall I quite liked this first book in the Poseidon's Children series. Despite being a bit too well padded, Blue Remembered Earth is one of Reynolds' better novels. I very much appreciate the way he focuses on Earth a bit more in this novel, as a starting point for what undoubtedly will develop into a deep space adventure later on in the series. The plot itself may be a bit weak but in other respects the novel has a lot to offer to the reader. It's probably a book that requires a bit of patience from the reader, especially since, being the first in a series, it doesn't try to answer all our questions, but I suspect that once the third volume is out, it will turn out to have been worth it. In other words, I'm quite looking forward to reading On a Steel Breeze.

Book Details
Title: Blue Remembered Earth
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 505
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08827-6
First published: 2012

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