Arriving with little of the fanfare of its predecessorBlue Remembered Earth, publishers Gollancz have chosen to launch the second volume of Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Children as though it were a standalone title, with no reference on the cover to the events which saw Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya crossing the solar system to solve the riddle uncovered by the death of their grandmother Eunice Akinya and exposing the deeper mystery of the Mandala, a vast object of undeniably intelligent construction on the extrasolar planet Crucible.
Told over twenty eight light years and two hundred calendar years, with time out for cryogenic skipover, On the Steel Breeze features a dual narrative which charts the interesting lives and turbulent times of Sunday’s daughter Chiku Akinya in two of her identical surviving forms, Chiku Yellow who remained on Earth and Chiku Green who travelled aboard the holoship Zanzibar to the 61 Virginis f system to investigate the Mandala. The third clone, Chiku Red, was lost when she attempted to rendezvous with Eunice’s ship Winter Queen on the edge of the solar system.
Chiku Yellow’s life with the luthier Pedro in Lisbon is safe, but she harbours resentment towards Chiku Green, of the adventure her distant sibling has undertaken and of her family, Chiku Yellow’s own son having opted to undergo transformation to join the merfolk, out of reach of the endemic Mechanism of the Surveilled World. Having broken communication with Chiku Green, she had not realised that when the anger passed she would be unable to re-establish the quangle, and when she is visited by an envoy of the merfolk who offers to restore the link, she knows there will be a cost.
On board Zanzibar, Chiku Green is pitted against both the inertia of politics and the limits of science. The convoy burnt extra fuel to cut the journey from 300 to 220 years, hoping improvements in technology would allow them to decelerate sufficiently to make planet fall with what little fuel remains, but those increases in efficiency have not materialised.
In dealing with exotic physics, mistakes can have catastrophic results, and when an accident aboard Zanzibar results in the depressurisation of a section and the deaths of all inside Chiku handles the situation as best she can but is forced to distance herself from her friend Travertine, the researcher who led the covert programme. Research into slowdown technology becomes more contentious, a mirror of our own times when political posturing and ill will puts partisan concerns over the immediate needs of healthcare, energy supply and global warming.
With opening chapters which summarise the events of Blue Remembered Earth without spoiling the mysteries which drove that novel, the new reader is brought up to speed swiftly and efficiently, but for those wishing to revisit Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, neither are forgotten, nor the late clan matriarch Eunice whose legacy still drives the push outwards from the solar system in surprising ways, the artilect constructed of her memories still active and participatory, though concealed.
With much of the narrative set aboard a vast colony ship, there are reminders of the interludes of Reynolds’ second novel, Chasm City, though despite the divisions among the flotilla and the setbacks they encounter, fortunately there are none aboard so ruthless as the Santiago’s Sky Haussman, determined his ship should reach its destination first at any cost.
Similarly, Reynolds has featured clones before, the Gentian line of House of Suns, split into a thousand shatterlings, and the sharing of memories by the Chikus reminds of Robert A Heinlein’s Time for the Stars where a pair of telepathic twins could instantaneously communicate across the light years, though the experience of the Chikus is more practically realised because they must contend with the time lag of the speed of light.
While the machine substrate consciousness has quite intelligently embraced an aspect of Frederik Pohl’s Nebula winning novel Man Plus, another concept from House of Suns explored very differently here is the animosity between organic and synthetic life, and there are aspects of the Eunice artilect which remind of Hesperus, the survivor of the Machine People who became a guest of the Gentian Line, though as a character she bears no resemblance.
Continuing his predilection for strong female leads, the Chikus are fascinating, bound together though separated by light years, any rivalry between ultimately a competition with themselves. Also interesting is Travertine, a being with vis own personal pronouns for reasons never explained, and it is likely that the descendants of the briefly met Dakota will play a huge part in the future of the human colonists and that of her own species.
Once again, Reynolds hasn’t just written a grand space opera, a technologically plausible exodus across the frontiers of space, diverse populations and families and ecosystems carried in carved out asteroids to the stars, he has created a mystery which he teasingly unravels before his readers. Though the novel occasionally drags, it is a satisfying and rounded narrative, and the conclusion indicates two directions which will likely be taken in the as yet unnamed third volume, to be set much deeper into the future.
Most excitingly, Crucible offers not only the Mandala but another presence, the first time Reynolds has approached the science fiction trope of the “big dumb object” since 2005’s Pushing Ice, though in this instance it might be more appropriate to term it a “big smart object,” the apparent silence the result of the unimaginable gulf between the human narrators and their discovery.
While that is perhaps best left alone, it is Travertine who explains why that will not happen: “Meddling is what we do. It’s what defines us. Meddling gave us fire and tools and civilisation and the keys to the universe. Fingers will get burned along the way, yes. That’s the way of it.”
On the Steel Breeze is available now from Gollancz