Saturday, 9 November 2013

Blue Remembered Earth

It's been a while, but I'm finally back to Alastair Reynolds. And, once again, he's pulled a new universe out of ... well, out of wherever it is that he pulls his imagined futures from. Unusually, this one, Blue Remembered Earth, is explicitly labelled as the start of a new sequence of novels. Bar the first outings of his Revelation Space series, Reynolds has gotten into the (good) habit of standalone novels - even when they are still set within his favoured future - so this is a bit of a change. But a change for good or ill?

It's the 2160s. Climate change is largely resolved (Kilimanjaro has snow once again), the developing nations of the early 21st century are now its new technological titans, humans are both augmented and peppered throughout the solar system, and Africa still - miraculously - has elephants. Opening with the studies of the latter by its chief protagonist, Geoffrey, the novel quickly establishes his "black sheep" status, a shirker-scientist within a powerful family. But the mysterious death of his reclusive explorer grandmother, Eunice, on her private space station changes everything, ultimately sending him on a journey across the solar system. Along the way he engages the help of his sister, Sunday, who also lives in semi-exile from their family in a libertarian, anti-surveillance commune on the Moon. Between them, they slowly piece together their grandmother's renegade life from clues she appears to have deliberately left for them to find. Clues which point to a radically different biography for Eunice, new physics that will transform life in the solar system, and distant secrets around other stars.

Another curate's egg this one. On the positive side, Reynolds does a good job (again) of building an interesting new universe, and populating it with striking concepts, not all of which rely on outer space thrills. So we have, among other gems, augmented elephants, their miniaturised lunar cousins, an AI Eunice as a self-aware art project, and artificially evolved Martian robots. But Reynolds sacrifices most of these to the expediencies of a fast-moving plot, particularly deleteriously in the case of the augmented elephants, where an emotionally interesting subplot concerning interspecies murder gets pretty rudimentary treatment. More disappointing, however, is this fast-moving plot itself, which gradually reveals itself as a succession of MacGuffins that simply serve to move Geoffrey and Sunday from point A to point B to point C. That they have all been carefully put in place by a secretive Eunice gives them a veneer of intrigue, but ultimately they boil down to a chain of cryptic breadcrumbs that the grandchildren can follow without thinking too hard along the way. As such, the novel's ostensible twists and turns feel far too canalised, and, as a reader, I was less thinking about what was to come, and more just wading through to the next breadcrumb.

So, overall, not a particularly satisfying read. Lots to like, but strung together in something less than the sum of its parts. That it's a planned series of novels seems unfortunate - like that of another favourite author read recently. But Reynolds has form in working imaginatively within a series, so I won't write the series off yet. We'll see.

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