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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth. Great title, isn't it? The evocative image of leaving Earth behind, only to remember its color in the blackness of space. It's an image that resonates on a visceral level. It also perfectly describes the nature of the technological period imagined -- the moment when Earth no longer becomes the center of humanity. Vast in scope and dense with character development and world building, Alastair Reynold's newest novel is a return to Utopian science fiction whose story isn't about the darker side of humanity, but the boundaries of our collective horizons.

Set one hundred and fifty years in the future, Africa has become the dominant technological and economic power. Crime, war, disease, and poverty have been banished to history courtesy of mandatory implants that curb and/or correct deviant behavior. While humanity has colonized the nearby planets, Earth remains the center of attention with known(ish) physics underpinning the whole operation.

Geoffrey Akinya is heir to the corporate super power that makes much of it possible. He's also a loner, living on the family estate and conducting experiments on the endangered elephant population that lives there. When his grandmother and company founder, Eunice, dies, Geoffrey's more entrepreneurial cousins task him to ensure the family's name remains unblemished after mysterious assets come to light.

It's really as simple as that. Blue Remembered Earth is a classic quest novel. One clue leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to an eventual big reveal that opens up a host of new possibilities for future novels. Given this standard narrative structure, Reynolds's novel places a premium on thematic exploration, characterizations, and world building. The degree to which he does it makes the novel a rousing success despite a plot that's as inventive as hyperdrive.

Admittedly, I wondered in the early going whether Reynolds was writing a novel or transcribing a science fictional reality television show about the African Walton Family. Entitled rich kids, a black sheep, an artist, the old guy, and a few insensitive assholes made up the cast who spend page after page just living their lives. As things progressed, I began to appreciate the pacing. Reynolds folds his world building into his characterizations and plot seamlessly, never resorting to sloppy info dumps or exposition. Does it cost him an extra hundred pages along the way? Probably. But it's time well spent, delivering a crystal clear picture of his imagined future and characters that shine.

From that basic framework Blue Remembered Earth takes a different approach than so much of today's genre fiction. Not dark or grimy, Reynolds spins a yarn that reflects on something inherently optimistic -- wonder and awe.
"Geoffrey had never been further than the Moon in his life. The sun was now more than thirty times as distant as it appeared from his home, and the light it offered was over nine hundred times fainter. It was a bullet hole punched in the sky, admitting a pencil-shaft of watery yellow illumination, too feeble to be called sunshine. For the first time in his life he truly understood that his home orbited a star."
It's not all roses among the stars though and Reynolds's excellent prose communicates the fear of the unknown and the inherent claustrophobia of space. If it's a throw back to Arthur C. Clarke science fiction as some might observe, it's a throwback with an understanding for the modern reader, embracing something of the space opera tropes and melding them with the hard science fiction tradition.

I have little doubt that there will be detractors out there. Blue Remembered Earth is not a thrill a minute science fiction. Slow burn is an accurate discriptor, but even once things get moving there is little action. Instead Reynolds offers the tension of space walks, faulty heat shields, and out of control robots. Perhaps such conceits no longer hold mystery for the cynical reader. They do for me and I found Alastair Reynolds's first effort in the Poseidon’s Children series to be an exceptional piece of milieu science fiction.

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At April 25, 2012 at 11:32 PM , Blogger Weirdmage said...

Hello, Justin.
Very interesting to see how different our reviews are. Especially since I think we pretty much have the exact same reaction to the book.
I'm waiting for the next volume now, I'm very interested to see where Reynolds takes this.

At April 26, 2012 at 6:13 PM , Blogger 2theD said...

I, too, reviewed this book three months ago when it came out. I agree that it does invoke that classic sense of "wonder and awe" like Reynolds does is so many of his other novels. Poseidon's Children looks to be a very promising series, but as far as a "classic" series goes, this may just pass as good.


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