Monday, July 08, 2013

Book Review: Blue Remembered Earth by Alistair Reynolds

In a rather unique take on the "near future space travel" story, Africa has become one of the predominant nations of Earth following a global-warming related catastrophe   When Eunice Akinya, one of the great pioneers of interplanetary travel and founder of Akinya Space, dies after decades of solitude, her grandchildren are left to discover her true legacy- a secret that she's kept even from her family for their entire lives.

In a very short amount of time, I've come to develop some very specific expectations of Alastair Reynolds: one-off stories that craft their own worlds without sequels, a hard scientific basis to back up the fiction, and a cast of realistic enough characters that they're neither entirely likable nor entirely unlikable.  (Apparently Reynolds does have his own established universe, but I did mention a very short amount of time- the time it took to read Terminal World, in fact.)  Blue Remembered Earth lives up to all of these expectations nicely, while at the same time telling a completely different story from the one in Terminal World.  Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya are our main characters, sharing the stage with Sunday's boyfriend Jitendra, as well as their cousins Hector and Lucas, the latter pair spending most of the novel at odds with their cousins.

Blue Remembered Earth is set on a dystopian Earth, one that recognizes Eunice's accomplishments for it but grew up without her being present.  Microcomputers have been implanted in every individual's brain (and eyes, and who knows what else) which has led to an end of war, and crime, and violence on Earth- with all of the good and the bad that this entails.  Hologram technology is unnecessary, as phone calls happen right within the brains of both recipients, and a person can even take over the form of a "proxy" - usually a robot designed to simulate human motion to a reasonable extent- or a willing host, in order to complete a task.

On a side note, I wrote the majority of this review prior to my Timecaster review, and I’m finding it interesting how I refer to some of the similar technology in such a different way.  The reason for this is because in Timecaster, it’s an ideal, a thought.  None of it feels real, because everything is taken to almost cartoony extremes.  Alastair Reynolds novels, on the other hand, are very hard Sci-Fi, and as a result all of the technology feels more important, like real advances rather than “Hey, in the future I bet...” concepts. Back to the review.

Lucas and Hector, effectively the antagonists throughout much of the novel, insofar as there is one, kick off the plot by sending Geoffrey on a family errand to retrieve the contents of a safe box on the moon owned by Eunice.  Their goal is relatively straight-forward and pragmatic: to ensure that the box holds no dirty little secrets that could tarnish the family name.  This kicks off an interplanetary scavenger hunt as Geoffrey and Sunday attempt to find clues that Eunice has hidden throughout the Solar system, all while keeping this information out of the hands of Lucas and Hector, as much out of spite for their hated cousins as for any other reasons.  After all, Geoffrey and Sunday are the liberal arts majors of the family- an elephant researcher and a sculptor, respectively- and there is no love lost between them and the business majors.

What follows is a look at the world Geoffrey, Hector and Lucas live in, an insight into how the family fragmented and how it can come back together, and a startling truth that Eunice set into motion.  And while Terminal World prepared me for the possibility of an open ending without a sequel, I'm glad to say that Blue Remembered Earth is poised to kick off a trilogy.  Whether that trilogy will follow the characters that we know (whose story is essentially told), Eunice (whose story is hidden in plain sight) or yet to come characters is up in the air.

As with Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth's great strength is attention to detail and world-building, setting up an entire future history without spoon-feeding us all of the details.  We don't get the opportunity to sit through Geoffrey's history class and find out what exactly shaped the world into what it has become, but we do have access to both Geoffrey and his sister's thoughts and memories when they apply that history to what affects them in the present.  While none of these characters act entirely for the good of mankind, neither do they act for entirely selfish reasons (this applies to the cousins as well, by the way), resulting in the same kind of realistic characters that we see in Terminal World.

Despite the grey area nature of their priorities, the conflict between these characters often seems to be anything but.  The character we’re generally led to root for, from day one, deceives the heads of his family, hiding facts from them, before going on to accuse them of a murder that they’re innocent of, physically assaulting them, and stealing family property in order to run from the government and avoid the consequences of that assault.  All of this, because he never trusted them, because they are business-like and unemotional.  And you go along with it, too, because, well, they’re overly business-like and unemotional.  You’re seeing the world through Doctor McCoy’s eyes, and Spock becomes the villain because his human side doesn’t actually show through.

If Terminal World piqued my curiosity of this author, Blue Remembered Earth made me a fan, and from this point I intend to be an avid follower of Reynolds' work.  This is hard science fiction of the sort that I can often only grit my teeth and imagine other Sci-Fi work to be, making it that much easier to enjoy, and with attention to detail that can make the relatively boring setting of "Earth in the future, with no violence" as intimate and interesting a locale as any other.  I look forward to the next look at Poseidon's Children, and I encourage you to join me with this first entry.


K.R. Smith said...

"In a rather unique take on the "near future space travel" story, Africa has become one of the predominant nations of Earth following a global-warming related catastrophe."

Is the whole continent of Africa one country in this setting? If so, is there any indication of how this came about? After all, contemporary Africa is occupied by many ethnic groups that don't like each other very much (the Hutu and Tutsi being the most well-known example). It sounds like this may be one chink in the book's plausibility armor.

William Silvia said...

I got the impression Africa in this setting was one nation. The book leaves a lot of details vague about the decades leading up to it, or just how much of Africa has been developed.