Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth, the first installment in a new trilogy of a very different flavour to his Revelation Space universe, is a very unusual science fiction novel, especially in the context of a modern understanding of science fiction that, unlike Asimov and Clarke, revolves less around ideas and more around a violence-imbued plot.  Poseidon's Children, in fact, might be argued to be an answer to Walton's discussion of the universality of violence in SF on, if it continues in this vein.  Blue Remembered Earth is a very unusual science fiction novel; optimistic (beyond simply the idea that we'll survive and spread, which as Reynolds has pointed out is itself optimistic) and thoughtful, it's got some really deeply concepts, and its Africo-centric view is a rarity, especially in Western SF.

The plot of Blue Remembered Earth is intimately tied in with the world that Reynolds creates in the 22nd century.  Augmented reality, a near-universal super-intellect that ensures that all on Earth and much of the inhabited Moon can't come to harm, Martian colonisation and economic utilisation of the Kuiper Belt, corporate wealth and post-global warming stability of the climate, African prosperity (seemingly on a post-scarcity level), easy space travel, and other elements which make the world of Poseidon's Children not a utopia, but a eutopia; it's not perfect, but it is good.  We're limited to the near-Earth parts of the Solar System, and the plot of the novel takes us over much of that area; interludes on Mars, Phobos and the Moon all happen in the wake of our African opening.  The novel follows members of the Akinya family tracing the footsteps of their pioneering matriarch Eunice, who was one of the earliest explorers of Mars and Phobos, and a settler on the Moon, before becoming a recluse in her personal atmospheric space station.  Geoffrey and Sunday, brother and sister and Eunice's grandchildren, have taken themselves out of Akinya affairs but Geoffrey is brought back in by Hector and Lucas in order to follow up an anomaly in Eunice's affairs, brought to light in the wake of her funeral; and that anomaly is what leads to the travels and complexity that ensue in Blue Remembered Earth.  Not a short novel, this is occasionally a little slow - Reynolds' need to explain some of the ideas behind his world do slow the novel - but it does keep the reader very much engaged, through an exciting and thought-provoking rather than action-filled plot, and by taking us around so much of the world; as well as with engaging, interesting characters.

Blue Remembered Earth's greatest strength may well be Reynolds' thoughtful characterisation.  Geoffrey, our main viewpoint character, has removed himself from the Akinya family business and become a researcher or conservator of elephants - which one isn't wholly clear, but then, the distinction isn't clear even now.  He's not terribly interested in the world beyond those elephants, which makes the way he's drawn into it by Hector and Lucas (with the bribe of additional funding) clever but also demonstrative of his nature: fiercely loyal to and possessive of his elephants, but that's something which changes over the course of the novel, slowly and definitely as things progress, an in an organic, human way, as he's exposed to bigger issues.  Sunday is also a rebel, living on the Moon in order to escape the all-seeing and risk-removing AI of Earth: she's an artist and involved in various subversive movements, and over the course of the novel uses those connections for help and aid.  She's also a trusting figure, despite her own self-image as a hard-edged cynic; one of Reynolds' better tricks is not simply showing her as self-deluding, but placing her on a scale, more cynical than Geoffrey but still not cynical enough.  The rest of the cast, whom the focus is on much less, is similarly well-written; there are no moral blacks and whites here, only shades of grey, with everyone acting from ulterior motive, very rarely simply for self-advancement, and that makes for not only an interesting moral, but also some points in the plot where Reynolds leaves the reader wondering whether the best ideology and people have been left ahead.

That is perhaps the best way to sum up Blue Remembered Earth; optimistic, complex and thought-provoking science fiction, in a world where blacks and whites are disparaged but still all-too-common, Reynolds has written a novel entirely in greys, and it's a beautiful, brilliant, highly recommended one.
The cover of Terminal World, Reynolds' latest novel, implies the events take place in his Revelation Space universe, by dint of style if nothing else; however, picking the novel up expecting it to be in the same universe would be a mistake - the differences are profound, from the simple fact that the story is confined to a single planet to the complex tone of the story and characters.

Reynolds was recently used by Dr. Grant Macaskill in a lecture as an example of pessimistic humanism in modern science fiction (for a theology lecturer, Grant is cool... by geek standards); Terminal World, unlike, say, Chasm City, has a view that is simultaneously deeply pessimistic and highly optimistic about humanity's future.  The characters are, as a rule, individuals who are honourable and noble within their own understanding of those concepts; Quillon, with his secrets, dark past and healing work is a man who wants to help save everyone; Meroka and Curtana are both driven, interesting and intelligent individuals with their own desires that they can put behind them for the good of the many; Ricasso is a man with his own agenda, wanting to help the world but perfectionist with it; and the villain for a good third of the book, Spatha, who is terribly obviously and cartoonishly villainly... is still a well-written, interesting character with the best interests of other people at heart and underlying his actions.  Each character is painted really well, and the only selfish character, and villain, of the story - a twist that comes right at the end, unexpectedly and brilliantly done - is well, and sympathetically, portrayed even after his betrayal.

The plot of the novel is a sort of epic fantasy quest, with science fiction bolted on... or perhaps a science fictional travelogue, with a quest and some violence bolted on. The travels of the characters away from, and back to, Spearpoint, encountering all sorts of obstacles and with politics and strangeness getting in their way, are brilliantly done; everything tends towards Spearpoint, as if it has a gravity all its own, and whilst the novel revolves around Quillon, as he says, "I moved on. Realised I wasn't the centre of my own universe. Wasn't even anywhere near the centre." (p478).  It's a plot that encompasses a lot of character growth, a  lot of world building, a lot of political chance and some beautiful, subtle elements (there's a flag - five stars on the side of a red field - that crops up a lot at one point without explanation; it's clear to a reader what the reference is) and whilst Reynolds varies the pace a lot - some action scenes get the blood racing, some slower areas where there is a lot of intellectual meat to chew, sometimes even combinations of the two - he manages to keep a very steady hand overall.

The setting is a beautifully constructed world that melds together science fictional futuristic ideas, steampunky aesthetics and technology, and even dark ages level elements into one planet through some strange science (I'm not sure it works); the concepts underlying the world are explained a couple of times in the book in some great analogies, but I'm not sure if they map to reality.  The thing is that they don't have to - the world, its fracturing, the strange structure of Spearpoint and the geography of the boundaries feel real and feel fascinating, too, since they're so well drawn and simply integrated into how the world works for the characters; it's a brilliant piece of work.

Terminal World is a demonstration of an author at the height of his game, and it'll be interesting, then, to see what Reynolds comes out with through his deal with Gollancz.  I look forward to it with interest!

Any readers around or in Fife? Reynolds will be giving a talk in St Andrews town library on Thursday, May 12th. Details here.
I bought this book in order to have something to be signed when Reynolds visits St Andrews in May, an event to which I have tickets; however, Chasm City has also really reminded me of all the things I enjoy about both science fiction and Reynolds' writing.

The characters of Chasm City are absolutely fantastic.  The mix of different backgrounds, personalities, types of character, and so on is absolutely fantastic; our narrator, whose identity is built up beautifully and with incredible skill over the course of the novel with some stunning and surprising revelations, is a really interesting figure on a number of levels, with his reliability questionable at times and his personality so beautifully portrayed and reacting to his environment at every turn - an environment made up of characters who are also really well realised.  The other main viewpoint figure, Sky Haussman, is equally fantastic; a sociopath, he's realised wonderfully, with Reynolds portraying his thinking and reasoning absolutely terrifyingly, because it is so alien and yet so human - a sort of unleashed version of us all; Haussman is really a dark mirror to the soul of humanity, something the novel seems to conciously play with.

The plot's complicated, baroque and beautifully controlled.  There are multiple strands - the narrator's mission, the history of Haussman, and the narrator's slowly developing sense of self as it is rediscovered; the complex interlinking between the plots, with transference smoothly done between them, and the convergence as the novel moves towards its conclusion slowly but deliberately, is really well done.  There are points, notably more at the early phase of the novel, where things don't really seem to cohere, but following things through to their ultimate conclusion brings everything together into powerful coherence and wonderful darkness.

The setting of Chasm City is equally baroque and imaginative.  Drawing, in some ways, on a similar font as steampunk - a return to older technologies - the whole setting is simultaneously futuristic and historically baroque; it combines decay and progress powerfully, and a mixture of the past and the future that is not only coherently explained and reasonable, but also makes more sense than many post-apocalyptic societies do.  Reynolds has put a lot of thought into the universe, and it shows; there's history and politics behind a lot of what goes on, and whilst we explore a relatively small section, there's hints of a far larger universe beyond it.  The lavish descriptions by Reynolds, reminiscent of China Mieville especially in their more baroque and effusive moments, serve to really bring the whole thing to life, if a kind of twisted and terrifying life, really effectively and evocatively.

Chasm City, whilst originally something to get signed because my other Reynolds books - The Prefect and Galactic North - are at home, has turned into far more than that; both a book I'd recommend strongly, and one that has persuaded me to delve again into Reynolds' extensive opus.  He's done our shared university proud.

Alastair Reynolds will be speaking at St Andrews Town Library on May 12th this year. Details here.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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