From his first published science fiction story just over two decades ago, Alastair Reynolds has marked a vast territory across the Milky Way and beyond as one of Britain’s most prolific, consistent and acclaimed science fiction writers, with five novels in the Revelation Space universe and three standalones, Century Rain, Pushing Ice and Terminal World, plus almost forty short stories. With a background in physics and astronomy, his style is hard science fiction informed by cutting edge knowledge of the latest theoretical developments and their practical applications, given wing by a wild and devious imagination coupled with a precise and commanding voice.
For the first time, Reynolds has now embarked on a planned trilogy, Poseidon’s Children, the first novel of which has recently been published. Set in the mid-22nd century, Blue Remembered Earth is the story of Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, the grandchildren of the formidable Eunice Akinya, who forged a business empire across the solar system before returning to seclusion in the Winter Palace, her private space station orbiting the Moon.
Following Eunice’s death, Geoffrey’s cousins Lucas and Hector come to request he undertake an assignment for the family: an audit of Eunice’s affairs has thrown up a loose end which they are concerned may be an indicator of greater problems concealed. They are reticent to investigate themselves as they do not wish to divert their focus from the running of Akinya Space, and a trip to the Moon by such prominent members of the family so soon after the funeral would draw attention which they are anxious to avoid when it may lead to something they may have no control over.
More concerned for the family of elephants he cares for than his own clan, Geoffrey initially refuses the request, but when they offer to support his precariously funded research he finds himself beholden to the cousins, and agrees to visit the Moon under the pretext of visiting his elder sister Sunday, a struggling artist. Against the explicit instructions of Hector and Lucas, Geoffrey divulges the real purpose behind his visit to Sunday and together they start their own investigation into the cryptic gift the matriarch of the family has left for them.
The original statement which introduced the trilogy stated that it would chart the branches of a family as the human race reaches into space, and it would be disingenuous to accuse that précis of being inaccurate or misleading; it’s just that it doesn’t begin to approach the whole truth. While a generational family drama, even one set in space, sounded like a departure for “the maestro of British SF”, that brief is simply the spine on which the narrative is hung, the multi-layered intrigue we expect from Reynolds with a big central mystery and the quest to unravel it.
The joy and agony of Reynolds is always the same – he lays the clues to the big picture tantalisingly then prolongs the wait for the answers, but skipping ahead would be to miss the journey through the intricate worlds he has shaped. Ultimately, knowing the answers isn’t enough – we have to also understand them and why they are important to the characters. That said, the final revelations are only a teaser for what is to come in the next volume, but the journey itself is sufficiently enjoyable to overcome that caveat.
Some of the diversions we witness are a lunar city of a scope that echoes Arthur C Clarke’s Earthlight, though we never learn whether it has scheduled rainfall, a breeding ground where machines compete violently with each other in the Tharsis mountain range on Mars, from beyond the orbit of Neptune to deep under the seas of Earth. It is from here that the sequence takes its name – Poseidon’s Children are those who “endured the turmoil of climate change, the metaphorical and literal floods”; the implication is that it will be these people who will move to the stars and tell their tale.
Though the Resource and Relocation war is over and humanity emerged stronger and more unified, there are holdovers that affect the present. Recurrent in Reynolds’ work is humanity’s fear of fully autonomous thinking machines, the Inhibitors of Revelation Space and the Machine People in House of Suns, and in this future development of artilects has been banned, an interdiction directly relevant to Geoffrey and Sunday who narrowly survived an encounter with a derelict war machine as children.
A major theme of the book is the friction caused by the expectation to honour the past against the need to look to the future. Always present in Geoffrey’s mind are the elephants, synonymous with memory, remembrance and family, but they are unable to conceive abstract thought, while he is forced to consider his future. Can they see ghosts, the way that Geoffrey does when Eunice enters his consciousness and speaks to him, even though he knows her to be a construct made of the accumulated data of her life?
While cranial augmentations are a frequent technology in Reynolds’ novels, there are many new innovations here, always delivered with calm authority. This may be a chronicle of an alternative space programme centred on Africa, but he is determined to avoid conventional rocketry at all costs, so instead we have the Blowpipe that hurls payloads to orbit from Mount Kilimanjaro and metallic hydrogen as rocket fuel. Diversions into zoology and biotechnology demonstrate that having mastered his chosen branch of science, Reynolds can move into others with equal assurance.
Yet for all the seriousness, there is levity; on more than one occasion Geoffrey expresses himself in a manner not unlike Arthur Dent (“Armed Drones. I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel.”) and Sunday’s arrival on Phobos describes fellow travellers unable to cope with even that mild gravity “supported in reclining dodgem-shaped travel couches, gliding around like deathbed patients on a terminal shopping spree.”
There is also a sense of wonder and possibility that bodes well for another forthcoming Reynolds project, the Doctor Who novel Harvest of Time. On first seeing Mars, Sunday states, “It’s a world. Worlds are wonderful,” and it is easy to imagine a certain Timelord making that same assertion. Neither is the sinister element of that show in danger of being forgotten, as evidenced by a creepy scene inside a derelict moonbase haunted by a walking spacesuit with a skeleton lodged inside, its footsteps echoing Silence in the Library, though Reynolds can point out the same idea featured in his short story Fury published the same year that was broadcast; which was written first, who can say?
Blue Remembered Earth – US
If there are weaknesses, it would be that the lengths the characters are willing to travel on ambiguous clues would be more believable had Geoffrey displayed more enthusiasm for escapism beforehand, and while the escalating antagonism with the cousins adds drama, the portrayal of Hector and Lucas is biased. Geoffrey and Sunday feel that they are perceived by the cousins as spoiled and irresponsible, a belief strongly supported by their actions, but had we been privy to the cousins’ points of view, both sets of siblings could have been more believable, with Hector and Lucas trying to protect Geoffrey and Sunday in spite of the chaos their behaviour is causing.
Despite the frustrating knowledge that this is just the prelude to a much greater story that will take humanity and post-humanity beyond trans-Neptunian space, it manages to wrap itself up with a satisfying conclusion and coda. To paraphrase Eunice Akinya, while we may not have the augs available to these characters, we too can experience a robust form of virtual reality called reading, and it is suggested that you enjoy these characters, as we will most likely not see them again, for the next leap ahead in the Akinya saga will be 1,000 years.
Blue Remembered Earth is now available from Gollancz