Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth (2012)

Edition: Gollancz, 2012
Review number: 1462

The setting of Blue Remembered Earth is a post-scarcity world, where an environmental collapse has been followed by the rise of African states as superpowers, a renaissance which is originally solar then fusion powered. The Akinya family has played a leading part in this, and its members are now famous and wealthy. The plot is set in motion by the death of their matriarch Eunice in her space station retreat. The main characters are her grandchildren, the idealistic Geoffrey and Sunday, who have rejected the Akinya corporate legacy, and the mercenary Hector and Lucas. A secure deposit box belonging to Eunice sends the first two on a quest to discover her true legacy, the first step in a treasure hunt across the solar system where each clue points to the location of the next, and Hector and Lucas are not far behind them.

This rather childish-seeming plot is not what the book is really about - and Reynolds can certainly do better at this aspect of novel construction. Reynolds is a master at world-building, and Blue Remembered Earth is basically a tour of the man-made wonders of the solar system of the future. The novel is a gallery to show off some of his ideas, some of which could easily be the foundation for whole novels of their own: from the "ethics shunt" installed in Lucas' brain to prevent morality getting in the way of business, to the Evolvarium, an area of Mars in which machines are left to evolve and compete, like a physical version of the genetic algorithms run in many of today's computer simulations.

While most of Alastair Reynolds novels remind me of writers like Iain M. Banks, Blue Remembered Earth is much more like older genre figures, in particular Arthur C. Clarke. Instead of writing a wide ranging space opera, here Reynolds sticks to the solar system, which is full of its own wonderful objects, including an updated version of Clarke's famous lunar monolith - Reynolds' version is on the Martian moon Phobos, and is fantastically carved by human tourists. There is an element of guided tour about the novel as a result, which will not be to all tastes. Like Clarke's 2001, the story builds up to a climactic revelation. The big question for a potential reader is going to be whether this ending really is a climax, or just a disappointing let-down. This is of course also the case for any story in any medium which is constructed as a sequence of "reveals" (to use a film-making term); The Whisperer, which I recently read, is an example of a thriller set up in this way, which I don't feel has a sufficiently good climax to work. Here, at least from the point of view of the characters, the ending is better, but to this reader, some aspects (particularly the reasons for the secrecy and the treasure hunt) don't quite gel properly.

Which brings me to the title of the novel. It is derived from A.E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad, of which the relevant lines seem to be "What are those blue remembered hills...? That is the land of fat content ... The happy highways where I went and cannot come again." It is hard to see how Houseman's poetic evocation of nostalgia relates to a novel which has such an optimistic view of the future of the human race, even if some tribulation has to be endured before that future arrives. The key is, I think, that this is the first of a new series: it is the blue remembered earth described in this novel which will be the object of nostalgia later on, suggesting that the series will become darker as it progresses.

My rating: 6/10; not appealing to me as much as Reynolds' earlier work.

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