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Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 505 pages

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Troika
SF Site Review: The Prefect
SF Site Review: Terminal World
SF Site Review: Terminal World
SF Site Review: Thousandth Night and Minla's Flowers
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: Galactic North
SF Site Review: The Prefect
SF Site Review: Zima Blue and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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The first thing to be said about Alastair Reynolds' new novel is that the plot is nonsense. Engaging nonsense, carried off with a great deal of panache, but nonsense nevertheless. The two central characters are sent dashing hither and thither across the solar system to find buried plot tokens that have been hidden decades before and yet whose discovery is somehow urgent for the immediate well-being of humanity. Of course, the things have been hidden so long that recovery has become filled with peril, yet our heroes succeed, usually thanks to a coincidence of astounding proportions. Oh, and they are helped in their quest by an avatar of the person who hid the things in the first place, though, conveniently, the avatar cannot remember anything connected with the quest.

There are so many improbabilities in all this that you wonder at the author's chutzpah in putting it all into a novel. Except, of course, that the plot isn't the really important thing here. The quest is, first of all, an excuse for a guided tour of the solar system a century and a half from now. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a springboard for the future volumes in this series, volumes that look set fair to have the baroque vastness we have come to expect from Alastair Reynolds.

But we start with something that is, for him, relatively small scale. Until the epic finale -- which starts to do what Reynolds has always done best -- this vision of the future takes us no further than Mars. Indeed, a large part of the novel is set within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa.

In this future, after a series of natural and political disasters, Africa has emerged as the new economic superpower, rivaling China whose star seems to be on the wane. It is here, in what was once Tanzania, that the powerful Akinya clan has its home. Ever since the space pioneer, Eunice Akinya, began the business the family has built up phenomenal wealth, most of which is now controlled by the cousins Hector and Lucas. But the youngest members of the family want no part of the business. Geoffrey has acquired a reputation as a naturalist studying the behavior of elephants, while his sister Sunday has retreated to an independent colony on the Moon where she earns a precarious living as an artist.

Then Eunice, who has spent the last several decades of her incredibly long life living as a hermit on a lonely space station, dies. Sorting through her legacy, the cousins discover she left a deposit box in a bank on the Moon, and through a combination of bribery and threats persuade Geoffrey to go and find what was in it. It turns out that the box contains a glove from an antique space suit, and this proves to be the first clue in the treasure hunt that occupies the rest of the novel. There is little point in detailing the various stages of this quest, except to say that Sunday is required to head out first to Phobos and then to Mars, where one vital clue requires her to visit the killing grounds of feral semi-sentient machines in what is easily the best set-piece in the book.

Various other interested parties get involved in the quest, either to lend help (at a price) or to hinder. For a long time it looks as if Hector and Lucas are going to turn out to be the main villains of the plot. And there is an extremist ecological group, so powerful it has created its own underwater state, that seems at different times to be either aiding or attacking Geoffrey and Sunday. But this isn't a novel for straightforward good guys and bad guys; moral perspectives shift and change, but as with most good hard sf the primary conflict is with the universe. The ecologists, who are already beginning to break into warring factions, have detected something curious on an alien planet. Meanwhile Eunice, who had helped the group when they were setting up their space telescope then had a spectacular and very public falling out with them, may have made a major discovery of her own. The gathering of plot coupons is simply a way of setting up the situation in which these two discoveries can come into play.

Along the way there's a lot of good stuff. The post-catastrophe Earth, with its all-seeing control system to make war, or indeed any type of crime or violence, impossible is, to be honest, rather perfunctory. But it involves an implant that allows communication with people wherever they might be in the solar system, either via actual avatars or purely within the mind, and this is developed in an interesting way as part of the general social background of the novel. The social situations we encounter are also interestingly varied: the underwater realm where most people have started transforming themselves into something resembling mercreatures (one central character has actually become a whale, which doesn't prevent her going out into space at one point); the lunar colony that has rejected Earth's control system and with it much of the convenience of this digital future; Mars that still has something of the feel of a frontier society. Of course, we pay attention to these backgrounds because that is what the treasure hunt plot is directing us to see. Reynolds has come up with what is, in the main, a convincing description of how life might be in the latter part of the next century; he just hasn't come up with an equally convincing story to tell about this future.

In a sense all of Reynolds's novels have had the same problem: a vividly conceived background to a story that is never entirely convincing. In earlier books he has got away with it because of his skill at depicting the immensity of space and time through which his stories are played out. The smaller-scale the setting the more obvious the problems with story become. Here, the mechanistic nature of the plot is perhaps best represented by the fact that at least three significant characters are all found to be alive long after they have been presumed dead. He has come up with a convincing background and some of the best characterization of any of his novels, and a particularly unconvincing plot because this isn't what interests him. Late in the novel, Geoffrey and Hector set out on a high-speed flight to a speck of rock and ice in the outer solar system, and suddenly the book comes alive. And you just know that subsequent volumes are going to take us ever further away from Earth and ever further out into the immensity of space that is Reynolds's natural habitat. And this book, good as it is in parts, is really no more than set up for that more distant, more expansive adventure.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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