It is a brave soul which sets out on a journey without a clear idea of the destination; a contrast to the dark space opera of his best known works of Revelation Space where he established his name, Alastair Reynolds’ loosely linked Poseidon’s Children trilogy was originally conceived to be a more optimistic sequence of space exploration which would take place over 11,000 years with the timespan between each novel increasing by a factor of ten.
Realising that it would be difficult to establish a strong connection through the narrative, ostensibly to be told through the Akinya family, the extended timescale necessitating distant ancestors rather subsequent generations, Reynolds reconceived the trilogy to flow more swiftly while still encompassing the same scope, each subsequent tale pushing farther beyond the solar system while still carrying the consequences of actions taken and decisions made before some of the current protagonists were born but which they have inherited as part of their (in)famous lineage.
On distant Crucible in the 61 Virginis system, brother and sister Mposi and Ndege Akinya are the children of Chiku Green, one of the main characters of On the Steel Breeze, second volume of the trilogy; Ndege’s daughter Goma and her wife Ru Munyanwza continue the research of Geoffrey Akinya of the first volume, Blue Remembered Earth, working with the elephant population transplanted to Crucible.
Under the guidance of the artilect construct of Akinya matriarch Eunice the elephant population had developed enhanced intelligence during the long voyage to Crucible on the holoship Zanzibar to become a splinter species called the Tantors, but over the generations of settlement the Tantor line has been subsumed back into the main herd, their individuality and their potential lost.
On Occupied Mars former merman Kanu Akinya, son of Chiku Yellow, the split-self variant of Chiku Akinya who remained on Earth who was second narrator of On the Steel Breeze, serves as ambassador representing the United Aquatic Nations of Earth. Alongside him are colleagues representing the United Surface Nations, the United Orbital Nations and the Consolidation; together they are the only four humans on the surface of a world otherwise occupied by the Evolvarium, the wildfire machine intelligences seeded years before by the real Eunice Akinya.
While Kanu is on good terms with the Evolvarium’s own ambassador, Swift, that friendship is viewed with suspicion by the others; when a terrorist attack results in the temporary death of Kanu his resurrection mediated by the Evolvarium brings an enforced return to Earth, no longer seen to be impartial in his dealings with the machines and so unsuitable for a diplomatic posting.
To both these branches of the family comes a message from deep space, the supposedly unexplored Gliese 163 system, forty light years from Sol, seventy light years from 61 Virginis, brief, uninformative, but asking for Ndege by name. Elderly and under house arrest following a “miscalculation” which resulted in the destruction of Zanzibar with the loss of four hundred and seventeen thousand people, Ndege cannot respond; from Crucible, her brother, daughter and daughter-in-law set out aboard Travertine, from Earth Kanu sets out in the company of Nissa Mbaye, his former wife of thirty five years.
What they find in the Gliese system they cannot be prepared for; a large contingent of Watchkeepers, the near dormant but vastly powerful artefacts of an ancient alien civilisation, and the waterworld Poseidon, bearing the mark of an even older visitation by a mysterious race whose secrets the Watchkeepers seek to comprehend as much as the humans who have stumbled upon their monuments.
The duration of the sequence may have changed, but Reynolds has succeeded in his desire to capture “that great serene detachment of mid-period (Arthur C) Clarke.” While he has always confirmed his admiration for and occasional emulation of the grand master of British science fiction, stylistically and structurally Poseidon’s Wake is the closest he has crafted to Clarke’s masterpieces, more than even the preceding volumes of the trilogy.
2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequels are most consciously echoed; the annihilation of Zanzibar left Crucible with a ring system which echoes the result of the destruction of one of Saturn’s moons coinciding with the placement of the Monolith on Iapetus, the instantaneous departure of a Watchmaker is as sudden, profound and disturbing as that of the Monolith above Jupiter in 2010: Odyssey Two and the oceans of Poseidon are inhabited by creatures at least as evolved as those who smashed the Tsien on the ice of Europa, but there are other reminders, Goma reflecting the final words of Rendezvous with Rama when she muses that “the Mandala Makers would do things in threes” and Nissa’s short range planet hopper possibly named after Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night.
The silent and unknowable Watchkeepers floating somewhere between the Monoliths of 2001 who cautiously encourage evolution and the beings of Joe Haldeman‘s Marsbound trilogy who ultimately are forced to confine humanity to a single planet for acts of planetary irresponsibility, the comment of Peter Grave of the Second Chancer cult consciously echoes both the prelude of Clarke’s novel and his analogy of the dispassionate weeding of a failed experiment: “Perhaps this is the point where we cross the line? Some algorithm trips inside them, a decision path, and that’s it? Extinction for the monkeys?”
Like the Akinyas, forever in the shadow of the legacy of the clan matriarch Eunice but determined to walk their own path, Reynolds work may be illuminated by Clarke but it has sufficient energy to shine on its own, and where he excels is in the variety and depth of the characters he introduces. With representatives of baseline humans, modified humans, machine intelligences and Tantors to name but a few, intelligence and determination is evident in all regardless of their diverse backgrounds, motivations and often conflicting viewpoints.
All act honestly and believably with the information they have and in a civilised manner; when tempers do flare, the numerous stresses of their situations beginning to erode their patience, most often apology is offered afterwards. Disturbing dreams are no surprise for those recently returned from the dead, but Kanu is concerned that his seem to be directing him; the obvious question is, despite his belief to the contrary, could the machines have influenced him in some way? Instead of harbouring these concerns in order to drive the plot, brooding on them in an inner monologue until they become a Möbius of futility plaguing the thinker and the reader, Kanu immediately voices them to Nissa and together they discuss it rationally.
It is a necessary contrivance of the narrative that the two expeditions arrive at the Gliese system within short order of each other, but with portions of the story told in parallel from different perspectives in the alternating chapters, the divergences of the accounts as important as the revelations they share, the repetition of points established only pages before does become frustrating.
Although a long book, with so much story to fit in there is a brevity to the text which makes it an easy read which can be enjoyed as a standalone even though it satisfactorily revisits and resolves the majority of the threads from the previous novels in addition to telling new tales to tell of the extended Akinya family and the worlds across which they have spread themselves, and it also serves as a practice run for Reynolds’ next project, his collaboration with Stephen Baxter on The Medusa Chronicles, official sequel to Clarke‘s 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa.