In The History of Science Fiction Adam Roberts writes, after Heidegger, that “technology, from windmills to hydroelectric plants, “enframes” the world in a certain way, allowing or shaping the ways in which we “know” the world around us.” Consequently, the science in science fiction is not much different from a classic thought experiment, an exercise in imagining our possible worlds and their technologically-defined architectures. I find this poke at a definition particularly useful when reading that core type of SF story, the futurist novel. It is easy to invent an imaginary science, like jaunt travel in Bester’s The Star My Destination or Le Guin’s ansible. The more difficult task an SF writer is faced with is to predict the technologies of the future and weave them into the textual world. An emblem of good SF writing is that fulfilling readerly feeling when in the final tapestry those technologies both define and are defined by the cultural milieu in which the narrative agents operate.
Alastair Reynolds has always been a very technology-oriented fantasist. Despite the rather huge gap in my reading of his stories (I hadn’t tried anything outside of the Revelation Space novels), I knew what to expect from his new book with a fair amount of confidence. No FTL-drives and other seemingly magical gimmicks. Instead, Reynolds likes to do his research and to anticipate technological developments that would be at least plausible at some point in the future. This attention to detail shows in the way his worlds unfold: technology is part of the characters’ cognitive maps and of the discourses within which they move, and as such is introduced incrementally and organically through their actions, language and conceptual patterns. The people of the future inevitably will be like those of the present – tiny mirrors that capture aspects of that world and reflect them back, twisted and tinged imperceptibly by their consciousness. It does not make much sense, in the usual case, to write of future technology as something extraordinary, exceptional or marginal. An authentic prognostic novel cannot hope to achieve its purposes, if fictive technology is not well integrated into its conceptual and linguistic mechanics. The sense of wonder will not come by shocking the reader with shiny ideas, but through good writing that faithfully portrays its objects and tricks the mind into a pleasant haze of sensory simulations. This is the way to set a brain on fire with SF memes.
Blue Remembered Earth, the first installment in the Poseidon’s Children series, tries to be just such a book and succeeds on most levels, a laudable feat. Unlike the Revelation Space series, it is not set in the distant future and takes place on a spatially more modest canvas that spans merely near-Earth territories. Nevertheless, it is at least as ambitious in its scope, as it strives to map out in clear resolution that future of the year 2160, when Africa and Asia are the leaders of the world economy and humanity has begun to grasp the full implications of its presence in the solar system. The narrative is centered around siblings Geoffrey and Sunday, descendants of space pioneer Eunice Akinya and offshoots of the Akinya dynasty, one of the industrial high houses of the day. Geoffrey is a biologist whose research on elephant cognition has emphasized significantly his empathy with the huge mammals and made him a sort of a social outsider, resentful of the doings of the Akinya financial empire. His older sister Sunday too refuses to affiliate herself with the family business and struggles as a middling artist in the pseudo-anarchic community of the Descrutinized Zone on the Moon. After the sudden death of their grandmother Eunice, Geoffrey is convinced to travel, rather grudgingly, to the Moon in order to investigate a piece of family matter. This sends the two siblings on an odd treasure hunt that might shed light on the life of reclusive Eunice. Meanwhile (of course), various agents and factions with undisclosed interests try to manipulate them in different conflicting ways.
Reynolds’s 2160 feels like a snapshot of a socio-economic system that is always in flux and always will be. Technological and socio-political strands of meaning are naturally spliced together and the origin of those developments can be easily traced back to the past of the novel, stemming from and necessitated by tangible historical and ecological circumstances. This is not the post-singularity era hailed by so many SF writers, but neither is it a post-apocalyptic one. Instead, it is a modestly optimistic prediction for the human condition. In that future humanity has endured the Resource and Relocation years and the terrible wars that accompanied them. It has spread in space, colonized Mars, the Moon and the satellites of the gas giants. Akinya space ships and machines mine iceteroids as far as the Oort cloud, while on Earth the United Aquatic Nations explore the deep oceanic ecosystems of the planet. Violence is no longer tolerated, as children are subjected to genetic manipulations called Mandatory Enhancements, geared toward weeding out any aggressive patterns of behavior. A failsafe technology – the Mechanism – keeps vigil over most of the human-inhabited lands and cuts off any attempt at violence by accessing the nanomachinery that augments all human brains. Full-blown, Turing-compliant Artificial Intelligences, or artilects, are hunted down by the Cognition Police for fear that warminds might once again roam unchecked.
This future world with slightly utopian shades (inevitably leaning onto the dystopic, depending on the viewpoint) is painted efficiently by Reynolds, who manages to show multiple iceberg tips and trick the reader into believing in the solidity of what lies beneath the water surface. If I have to characterize his style of writing with just one word, it would be functional. It certainly cannot boast cleverly-engineered metaphorical depths or a viral profusion of sensory detail that catapults the imagination into a self-perpetuating illusion of reality. But for the kind of novel Reynolds has written, this is not essential anyway. His work is inextricably linked to the present, which contains the seeds of that future’s genesis. The reader needs to be able to switch quickly between actual current and potential future technologies and geo-policies. Reynolds’s writing is especially conducive to this kind of active extratextual interpretation and appreciation. The first two hundred pages of the book follow a more leisurely pace which allows the reader to sink in the world and soak its wonders. Reynolds keeps the new information incoming in delicious bits while managing to give his narrative an easy, almost travelogue-like rhythm. In the remaining pages the novel picks up its tempo and starts to resemble more and more an SF thriller. This sacrifice of the relaxed immersion in textual reality is a pity – I would gladly read many more pages of it – but the plot inevitably demands such a change of pace. Reynolds’s writing proves to be well-suited to the whole spectrum of his writerly gear-box. It always says something important and almost always does it vividly enough, without unnecessary flourishes. Just a couple of examples:
“… it was only now that he was beginning to remember how closely braided their lives had really been. Weeks, months, in Amboseli. Memphis had often come out to the research station while Jumai was fashioning the architecture for the human-elephant neurolink. They’d often ended up eating together, late at night, under a single swaying lamp around which mosquitoes orbited like frantic little planets, caught in the death-grip of a supermassive star.
Long stories, silly laughter, too much wine. Yes, Jumai knew Memphis.”
“The golem looked at her. The good eyeball tracked her in its socket, the other one twitching like a fish on land. The mouth moved, clicking open and shut in the manner of a ventriloquist’s dummy, as if opened by a crude mechanism. For the moment, there was no animation in the face. It was like a limp rubber mask with no person wearing it, sagging in the wrong places.”
Even when he waxes adjectival, the words crackle with enough spark not to let the cogwheels of imagination grind to a halt:
“This voice was deep and sonorous, varnished and craquelured.”
All in all, Reynolds writes well enough to animate his characters and ideas. The first are well written too, although certain aspects of their psychology do not receive enough textual flesh. Too little of Geoffrey’s professional and personal life is peeled off under the reader’s microscope, and the same goes for Sunday. There is enough psychological meat to keep the plot going and anchor their narrative voices to its purposes, but it is too meager to really engage the reader in the siblings’ lives, to make them objects of interest in and of themselves. And those two could, potentially, be quite interesting.
The ideas, however, are grand and masterfully developed. The future solar system society is incredibly dense with new technologies, as can be expected, and those feel like extensions to the characters’ minds, which signals that they function well within the textual world. Reynolds never allows his passages to get too technical, but nevertheless succeeds in suggesting that his characters know what they are talking about when they discuss the sophisticated artifacts of the future. There is a lot of cognitive science in the novel, and it is not just about human cognition. The beginning chapters imply that the book will also be about what makes a being truly conscious. There are the moral issues of constructing artilects, Geoffrey’s wondrous research project to see through the mind of an elephant and Sunday’s attempt to reconstruct a dead human from a large collection of data gathered by posterity engines. Also, robot wars, merpeople, Panspermeanism and machine ecosystems. The citizens of the solar system ching everyday to distant locations, they dislocate their minds and communicate as incorporeal holograms or embodied in clay golems, robots, or even warmblood vessels – people willing to lend their bodies to unfamiliar minds. Pity that, as the novel speeds up, these recede in the background and serve a mostly supporting function to the plot. There are hints throughout the book, however, that they may return in full force in the next books, which makes sense in the context of the story.
There are plenty of other sexy ideas, but listing them in a review is pointless, better dig in the novel and discover them alone. Reynolds will take care that you don’t get lost in the verbiage, and somewhere along the way you will feel completely at ease with the constructed reality. He has a knack for word creation, if not logodaedaly, and this adds to the substance of the fictive world. And not just by introducing noun neologisms, which is a fairly standard SF method, but also frequently used new verbs (and verb senses), like chinging and blinking. His greatest achievement in this novel, however, is the synergic dome constructed out of all the nifty imaginary inventions. Without being too didactic, the novel establishes a center among its constellation of ideas and conveys an unambiguous message – that humanity will at some point realize its focal role in the wider context of the universe.
“The world had absorbed the dizzying lessons of modern science easily enough, hadn’t it? Reality was a trick of cognition, an illusion, woven by the brain. Beneath the apparently solid skin of the world lay a fizzing unreality of quantum mechanics, playing out on a warped and surreal Salvador Dali landscape. Ghost worlds peeled away from the present with every decision. The universe itself would one day simmer down to absolute entropic stasis, the absolute and literal end of time itself. No action, no memory of an action, no trace of a memory, could endure for ever. Every human deed, from the smallest kindness to the grandest artistic achievement, was ultimately pointless.”, thinks one of the characters.
“We came through. That’s all. We weathered the absolute worst that history could throw at us, and we thrived. Now it’s time to start doing something useful with our lives.”, says another.
Human nature is what it is and it will never be perfect, but at some point it will have to assume some more meaningful role, be it ordained to us by fate or random chance. The other option is a quick descent into entropy. Intraspecies violence, ecological negligence, petty squabbling and unintentional egoism will no longer constitute relevant human behavior. This implicit thread of thought is neatly mirrored in the plot of the novel by a twist in the story, which, even though only slightly, reminds one of the self-deluded protagonists of Kazuo Ishiguro. One of nicest touches in the book, plot-wise. So in conclusion, Blue Remembered Earth is a very, very good book. Close to excellent and still far off from great, but definitely looking in that direction. I would have liked to see more of that world, to learn a greater deal about its economy, politics, science and art, to get to know the Akinyas better and to get a more solid sense of their African ancestry. They could have easily been Caucasian, if not for the looming presence of mount Kilimanjaro over their home. But even as it is, Reynolds’s new novel is a must read for fans of serious SF. If the following books raise the bar even higher, this might turn out one of the important series in the new history of the genre.