Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds

There is a track on Kenny Garrett’s 2002 release Happy People that is a mix of three placid Asian folk songs. For almost seven minutes, Garrett plays with an uncharacteristic calm, before finally letting loose a sudden blast of harmonically adventurous butt kicking. “That right there,” said a friend and band mate, “was when he just couldn’t restrain himself any more.” I thought of that about halfway through Blue Remembered Earth. Considering the gothic insanity of the Inhibitor books or the steampunk noir of Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth is strikingly normal. The characters are regular people, any post-human modifications are understated, nobody is hooked up to a calliope/life support system, no pigs have been uplifted. I was not disappointed by any means, but I was definitely taken aback by the recognizable near future, accustomed as I am to Ultras or Chasm City denizens. Then, suddenly, some of the characters find themselves in an anarchic Martian arena, where machines are set loose in a hyper-Darwinian struggle in hopes that some sort of useful technology will evolve itself midst the mechanized terror. “This is more like it,” thought I, but there is much to cover both before and after this flash of Reynoldsian horror.

I’m diving into this book both with an eye on wrapping up my Books of 2012 list and as a part of the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Being very serious about my own pomposity, I want to look at Reynolds’ book in terms of what it says about the SF Experience right now; in particular how it fits into some noticeable Hard SF trends and how it answers some recent laments of SF losing its way, becoming irrelevant and/or boring, and failing in its alleged duty to address modern day problems and inspire answers to them. In terms of an actual “book review,” it should come as no surprise to frequent readers that I’m a big fan of Blue Remembered Earth; nobody will be more shocked than I if I ever give Alastair Reynolds a negative review. (Not just because he once retweeted a post, then answered my question of which Steely Dan album he wants to be. There are literary reasons as well.) (And for the record, it was Royal Scam.)

Blue centers itself on the Akinya family, an Africa-based business empire. Grandmother Eunice, whose intrepid genius built said empire, has just died. At the funeral that opens the book, control of the family passes to Hector and Lucas. “The cousins” enlist the introverted elephant researcher Geoffrey to clear up some lingering questions on the Moon. He in turn pulls his bohemian sister Sunday in, after these small questions open up into much larger issues. The balance of the story follows the two as they unravel a mystery left behind by Eunice, while also tracing the family relationships inside the complicated Akinya clan. Along the way, Reynolds takes us on a tour of the Solar System, all while poking around questions of law and surveillance, AI, the environment, how we might spread out away from Earth, and proper uses of machines and biology.

I think it is no coincidence that three of the highest profile Hard SF books of 2012 (this, Existence, and 2312) all confront the same questions of how we will survive the coming years of (inevitable?) turmoil and spread into the Solar System. Each takes different paths to different answers, but all seem to be direct responses to recent conversation inside the field. Between the Mundane SF movement, Neal Stephenson’s call for more optimistic, proactive SF, Paul Kincaid’s lament on SF exhaustion, and other smaller scale conversations, The People seem to want books that pull back from Galactic War and address our fears right now, but not in a gloomy, dystopian way.

Reynolds starts with the now common proposition that our generation will fail completely to address climate change, basing his Earth on the possible consequences. Much like Kim Stanley Robinson, he posits massive change and upheaval, tempered with scientific ingenuity and our inate abilities to make do. We have made our way into space, as far as the Moon and Mars. The Earth has settled into a kind of omnipresent world government that uses constant surveillance to prevent crime and violence. Parts of the Moon and Mars, by contrast, remain free of prying eyes, letting Reynolds create his first dichotomy. Another is provided by the Panspermian movement, which advocates humanity’s duty to spread biological life throughout the universe; they are in ideological conflict with the establish government policies that favor a more mechanized, uploaded approach. Here too Reynolds toys with burning questions in contemporary SF. From the fundamentals of the world building through the details of characterization and plot, Reynolds confidently engages with critiques and issues in the genre.

I’ve taken a general survey of reactions to Blue, most of which can be immediately categorized into those familiar with Reynolds and those giving him a first try. Those of us that have read through most of his novels know that we’re in for a dense, idea-rich book that moves at a stately pace. Readers coming in from lighter stuff may well bounce off of it all. Blue is certainly a challenging book, one that demands thought and patience from the reader. All the more so as Reynolds brings up plenty of questions, but doesn’t necessarily propose answers. Do we think that the benevolent, but somewhat stagnant, Surveilled World is better than a more dangerous alternative? Should we be looking to send our meaty selves to the Oort cloud, or uploaded personalities? What are our duties to ourselves and our families? The plot requires no answers, so we are allowed to decide for ourselves.

By now it is probably clear that I think Blue Remembered Earth is one of the vital books from 2012. It gives as good a summary of SF today as anything I’ve read. Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.

Rating: The author may not like this, but I have to compare him to the German National Team. Methodical, precise, and relentless, somehow these books always end up winners.