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.

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11 thoughts on “Blue Remembered Earth

  1. This makes me look even more forward to reading the book than I already was. I wish I had read it when I picked it up (right after it was first released), but it is yet another book on the pile waiting for me to find the time. My first experience with Reynolds was reading Chasm City and it remains one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. John DeNardo at SF Signal recommended it to me when I asked him where to start and it was a good choice as it hooked me right away. I haven’t read much of Reynold’s work, though I do have several of his novels, but Chasm City has marked him as one of my favorite authors all the same.

    Great review, I’ll remember to come back here once I’ve read it for myself.

    • Thanks Carl! Chasm City is a very different experience than this one, at least in terms of all the weirdness. Reynolds can be hard to find the time for, at least if you’re me and tend to count things in terms of books finished, rather than pages read or deep ideas imbibed.

  2. I read this last September. I’d include a link, but given my thoughts were just a slightly less erudite echo of your opening paragraph there doesn’t seem much point, “Well, this is all very… measured. Oh, killer robots. About bloody time.”

    I’m pretty sure this is meant as the opening to a series, in which case the rather staid first half should have a greater pay off. We shall see. I can only applaud your restraint in avoiding a, ‘book of two halves’ comment in your rating.

    • Because I enjoy your writing, I immediately went and read your review. I think we are, in very different ways, saying much the same thing.

      Like you, I prefer Creepy Alastair, but I read this in the context of a whole bunch of other similar stuff, so that kept me entertained during the sedate bits.

      Have you read Terminal World? You’d love the bath house gang lord and his steam calliope.

      [Edit: Woah, that grammar I cleaned up was worthy of your students. Oops.]

      • Thank you. Glad you like it.

        Yeah, I think we have pretty similar views of this. In fact you nailed pretty everything I’d got in your first paragraph and then went on to add some far more interesting and intelligent points on the wider context.

        I should mention my usual disclaimer though that my book posts are in no way meant to be reviews. They’re basically an effort to keep a track of what I read and think a bit more about the books I do, which is why they’ll often be completely unfair, unbalanced and tangential. Or just badly done and nonsensical. I started doing it just because I was beginning to lose track of which books I’d read, especially in longer continuities. I’m pretty sure there’s at least one Culture book I’ve not read yet, but can’t figure out which one. Likewise, Mr Reynolds. I know there are a couple of his older books I’ve not read, but again, which ones are anyone’s guess.

        All of which is an indulgent and self-obsessed way of saying that yes, I have read Terminal World, and I did love it. I’m a geographer by training so have listened to my fair share of talk on ‘vertical cities’, it was nice to see someone run with that so literally and imaginatively.

      • The project that turned into this blog was similar. Now it’s turned into a writing and critical thinking exercise to keep those muscles from shriveling away now that grad school is over. That’s also why I tend to wander far into political science; it’s not like I can indulge myself like this at work. I don’t even do Japan related stuff any more, so somebody has to put up with my hobbies.

        I’m far more interested in people’s random reactions to books than reading a lengthy plot summary, followed by “I like this book because….blah blah blah 3.5 stars.” I also enjoy reviews that mock, but I need to read more crappy stuff before I can join in. John Norman and Gor, here I come.

        In other news, next time I’m in Japan (whenever that may be), I totally want to hang out.

  3. When once I managed an 80,000-volume used bookstore, I found some Alastair Reynolds in the sci-fi/fantasy section. (For the record, that was another life-time ago.) The books looked interesting, and I dipped into one–I don’t recall the title. For whatever reason (remember, this was probably 1,200 books ago), the book and I failed to connect; back to the stacks it went.
    I say this only because “Royal Scam” is the sole offering from the Dan that leaves me unmoved and curiously detached from all the rotten shit the inhabitants of Fagan and Becker’s skewed musical worlds are enduring for my listening pleasure.
    Perhaps this offers a reason for my failure to find myself immersed in Mr. Reynolds’ world. Or perhaps it’s nothing at all, other than my old boss’s observation that “every book has its reader.” This reader was, at that one time and place, neither the implied reader nor the actual reader Mr. Reynolds’ books were looking for.
    Pep, does this mean anything at all?

    • I have seen Royal Scam described as the most guitar heavy, rock oriented Dan album. Reynolds dabbles in rock guitar on the side, so I can see why he might like it. My favorite cut on the album is “Caves of somethingerother,” which seems to be a largely forgotten track. Jazz playing me gravitates towards the later stuff more anyway.

      I think the consensus on Reynolds is that Chasm City is the place to start. He is demanding to be sure, and nobody has accused the man of being light on his feet. I don’t mind the slower pace myself, but I can see why other people bounce off of him.

  4. Caves of Altamira: I’m a bookkeeper’s son/I don’t wanna shoot no one/Well, I crossed my old man back in Oregon/won’t take me alive.
    Maybe it’s because the tracks on Royal Scam are so unforgivingly grim and dark. Yes, I’m a cynic and by and large a pessimist, but even somebody like me requires a little lightness every once in awhile, and Scam offered no respite.
    But we’re veering off sci-fi and into rock criticism. And as long as I’ve done that, what the hell is the tune “Memorabilia” on Sunken Condos about, and who is Louis Dakan? Any idea?

    • Lyrics barely dent my consciousness, so they could be talking about spam for all I know. Memorabilia is apparently about someone who collects artifacts from the Manhattan Project and later nuclear tests. The beautiful island he talks about is the Bikini Atoll, according to either an interview or review I read somewhere. I was listening to that disc yesterday, which led me back to Nightfly, then to Kamakiriad. Fagen in heavy rotation lately.

  5. Pingback: Books of 2012 | Two Dudes in an Attic

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