Thursday, September 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds quickly became one of my favorite authors after I read his Revelation Space books. I went on to read all of his other published novels, so when I discovered that he was releasing the first book in a new trilogy called Poseidon's Children this summer I was very excited. The name of the book is  Blue Remembered Earth and it was released on June 26, 2012 but for some reason I was able to get it delivered to my house from on June 5!

The evocative title is meant to refer to the central idea of the series, which is about humanity venturing out into space, leaving Earth behind as a memory of an ever increasingly distant and fading blue marble. The main protagonist of the story is George Akinya, who is a diffident, rebellious and somewhat spoiled member of the Akinya family. The Akinya name is known world(s)-wide due to the megacorporation Akinya Space created and nurtured by George's grandmother Eunice, who was one of the early pioneers in the commercialization of space.

Blue Remembered Earth is set roughly 150 years in the future from "now" and in a plausibly recognizable future. The earth has been dramatically impacted by climate change and the global balance of power (something also posited even more extensively in Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising which I reviewed recently) has shifted so that Africa and Asia are the dominant continents, not North America or Europe. In fact, the language that most of the characters speak is Swahili, and the Akinya home is in Kenya relatively near Nairobi but in sight of the peak of Kilimanjaro.

George is a biologist whose life work involves studying African elephants, trying to completely understand the complex familial and societal structures that these intelligent and powerful animals  develop. It's implied but never explicitly stated that George likes "his elephants" more than he does "his family," which primarily consists of his sister Sunday (who is even more rebellious than George and has also rejected the trappings of the Akinya name and wealth to become an artist in a separatist colony/commune on the Moon) and his itinerant mother and father (who never really make much of an impression in the book due to their travels in the far reaches of the solar system). Other family members which do play prominent roles in the story of the book are George's cousins, the twins Hector and Lucas who are the members of George's generation of Akinyas who have stepped up and are running the family business.

At Eunice's funeral, Hector and Lucas ask George to go to the Moon to check out a safe-deposit bank mentioned in her will which they are worried may include something incriminating from Eunice's past which may reflect badly on her and by extension Akinya Space which they shepherd. Since, it will give him a chance to see his sister Sunday who is his closes ally in the family and result in a hefty financial donation to support his elephant research, George agrees and the wheels of the plot are set in motion which place George and Sunday in the crosshairs of multiple centers of power on Earth and eventually leads to Sunday going to Mars and George going one of Jupiter's moons as they discover the paradigm-altering secrets left to them by their grandmother.

One of the most interesting features of all of Reynolds books is his attention to detail in his "world-building" and the settings for his novels. Here he is focused on technological and sociological developments which could come to pass, which he seamlessly incorporates into the book. One which I appreciated was his matter-of-fact inclusion of two minor (but pivotal) male characters into the book who are married to each other and absolutely none of the primary characters comment on their relationship as if it is out of the ordinary, because presumably in 2162 marriage equality is a long-settled fait accompli. This is a nice touch, and one that should not go uncommented on because LGBT fans of science fiction have long been annoyed by creative works which describe all sorts of speculative changes which occur in the future but don't deal with sexual orientation at all. (Jack McDevitt is a recent example of science fiction books I have been reading who fails this test completely, as of course do the Star Trek television series).

Other technological advances that Reynolds introduces into Blue Remembered Earth are the fact that most humans have "augs," which are basically a neural interface to what the Internet/world wide web has become that allows people to do a number of things like instantaneously translate languages, communicate electronically, and remotely operate golems at vast distances. This last ability is called "chinging" and it means that one can be in Paris, but looking through the auditory and visual interfaces of a golem in a bar on Mars and have a reasonable conversation with someone there. Thus this reduces the needs for physical travel at the same time travel between the planets has become available to the elites of humanity.

Generally, Reynolds is optimistic about the future but one aspect which I found troubling was his idea that in the future a world-wide computer network will have complete panoptical visual access to all of humanity and will use this power benevolently to prevent and prohibit any kind of physical violence between individuals (on pain of incarceration and, it is implied, death and/or personality modification for offenders).

Blue Remembered Earth is not Reynolds at his best, but even Reynolds at, say 75%, is still far more interesting than probably 90% of the speculative fiction that is published in a year, which makes his latest work something any fan of the genre should not hesitate in reading, after having read his brilliant works set in the Revelation Space universe.

Title:  Blue Remembered Earth.
Author: Alastair Reynolds.
Length: 512 pages.
Publisher: Ace Hardcover.
Published: June 5, 2012.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.66/4.0).


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