Jupiter, the lord of the solar system which dwarfs the other planets, has featured prominently in mythology, astronomy, and science fiction, notably in the work of the legendary grand master Sir Arthur C Clarke. While most would connect that planet with its appearance in the finale of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in fact that was a divergence between film and novel, as in Clarke’s written version of the story the Monolith was in the moons of Saturn.
Rather it was in his Nebula Award winning 1971 novella A Meeting With Medusa that Clarke first ventured into the upper layers of the gas giant in the company of Commander Howard Falcon aboard the Kon-Tiki, encountering a dazzling series of natural phenomena and, most importantly, lifeforms, a whole ecology existing within those lofty dense clouds, the vast floating Medusae and the predatory Mantas.
That particular ecology was revisited by Clarke when 2010: Odyssey Two was published, the narrative consciously following the filmed rather than written version of events, the Starchild who was once David Bowman visiting the moons of Jupiter and the planet itself witnessing sights matching those described a decade previously before descending to discover a core of diamond the size of a planet.
Clarke proceeded to write two more space odysseys before his death but the story of Howard Falcon was not continued, so it has fallen to Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, both British science fiction writers with a background in science and so closely aligned with Clarke’s own history, whose Medusa Chronicles is “the story of those troubled centuries” between 2099, only months after A Meeting with Medusa, to the year 2850.
That the bright optimism of the future of the opening reads like Clarke is unsurprising as both Baxter and Reynolds were inspired by Clarke in their childhoods as much as Howard Falcon’s dreams were shaped by waking to a (scheduled) snowfall in Yorkshire when he was eleven years old, going out to play and sighting a hot-air balloon passing overhead.
Picking up the narrative after the Kon-Tiki expedition, reclusive hero Falcon receives an invitation to meet the World President on the world’s largest cruise ship, the gargantuan encompassing mechanical marvels as much Thunderbirds as Clarke, never more so than in the line “during dinner, the USS Sam Shore discreetly submerged,” though as the great love of Clarke’s life after the stars was the ocean this is exactly as it should be, but beneath the tranquil surface of late twenty first century life the tide is turning.
Despite living in an apparent utopia, with less competition driving the immediacy of need gratification which underpins life in harder times the attitudes and prejudices of a previous age have re-emerged. Despite his fame, Falcon is an intensely private person who shuns personal contact and there is resentment of him on Earth, the anti-Machine movement seeing his cyborg body as an unwanted bridge between species.
Nevertheless, when a Machine run mining operation in the distant solar system ceases work and communication it is Falcon who is sent to investigate, meeting with Adam (Autonomous Deutsch-Turing Algorithmic-Heuristic Machine) whose sense of loss following an accident in which many other Machines were destroyed has brought him to self-awareness, a dangerous precedent which Falcon is ordered to overwrite in Adam and his peers.
But this is Howard Falcon, the man who made first contact with the Medusae, friend to Ham 2057a, the uplifted chimpanzee who serves as Ambassador to the World Council of the Independent Pan Nation, who recognises that Falcon treated the degraded and enslaved superchimps caught in the disaster of the Queen Elizabeth with consideration even as his own former life was ending, and instead of destroying Adam he counsels him to conceal his identity, delaying the inevitable confrontation.
Despite the understandable expectation that The Medusa Chronicles would focus on the mysteries of the Jupiter and its inhabitants, instead it is a whirlwind tour of the solar system, from the Kuiper Belt to the Free Republic of Mercury before finally descending into the clouds to meet what the Machines have become, agents of impossible wonder and incomprehensible architecture, the children of humanity surpassing achievements their parents can barely comprehend.
One of the problems Reynold’s encountered in his Poseidon’s Children trilogy, originally envisaged to take place over generations over thousands of years, was a consistent viewpoint; here, the long-lived Howard Falcon spans the centuries, in each section meeting descendants of human characters from previous chapters, in particular the Springer-Soames family, but being little more than a brain in a box who has dispassionately observed history pass before his eyes, occasionally pressed to intervene, he is a cold narrator.
Conversely the Machines can replicate their memories, their consciousness, a virtual immortality which leaves them with little connection with organic lifeforms. Having been dismissed by humanity then actively taught to disregard the lives of the Medusae by the Martians it is little surprise that they then treat humanity in the same manner, but what is surprising is that in the centuries that pass so little attempt is made at rapprochement, a way to move forward with both species cooperating and benefitting rather than continuing to point the finger at one hasty action provoked by both sides.
With the plot driven by the breakdown of relations between the different sides, irrevocable, violent and entrenched, an escalating war of intolerance and determination, it doesn’t feel like a book Clarke would ever have written. His conflicts always primarily intellectual rather than adversarial, his sole novel driven by overt conflict, Earthlight, having the confrontation confined to a single chapter, The Medusa Chronicles emulates Clarke rather than truly representing him.
Certainly many of Clarke’s ideas are present, Adam suffering an internal conflict exactly as HAL once did, Discovery class ships, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna playing as the introduction to Kalindy Baskar’s Neutrino Symphony, the Machines becoming von Neumann replicators as were the Monoliths in the atmosphere of Jupiter, their impact on the civilisation of Earth not unlike that of the Overseers of Childhood’s End, the interludes recalling The Hammer of God, even Falcon’s consideration that the changed Moon resembles Mordor echoing Heywood Floyd’s thoughts on Io.
Nor is this breaking new ground for Reynolds or Baxter, organic/machine politics underpinning Reynolds’ House of Suns and the themes and ideas which Clarke explored in his own Space Odyssey already revisited in his Time Odyssey trilogy, co-authored by Baxter.
Despite this, the final sections of the novel do channel the marvel and narrative audacity of the grandest of Clark’s works even as they take their cues from Iain M Banks’ probe into a gas giant dwelling non-human society in The Algebraist and Clarke’s short story The Fires Within, transforming into, in the words of Dave Bowman, “something wonderful.”
The Medusa Chronicles is available now from Gollancz