Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon's Children)
by Alastair Reynolds
Cover Artist: Dominic Harman
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441020713
Date: 05 June 2012 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
In Reynolds' future, the US, China, and India have each had their moment in the sun, and the ascendant nation is Africa, though in truth, we don't see much to back that up, the focus of the story revolving around one African family, the offspring of Eunice Akinya, the matriarch went out into space in what would be our near future and founded an industrial dynasty that spans human space from Mercury to the Kuiper belt. Sixty two years before the story opens, she shut herself into an orbital station around the moon, communicating occasionally with the family from her retreat...then dying offstage just before the opening of the book, which opens back in Africa at her family estate.
The main characters are her grandchildren, Geoffrey and Sunday, each of whom have interests other than the vast commercial empire that the matriarch created and the mercenary cousins, Lucas and Hector, run for the family. Geoffrey is doing research into elephant cognition, using neural linkages to cross the gulf between human and pachydermian experience, while Sunday is an artist living on the back of the moon in a zone where society's monitors cannot reach. They're the family rebels, each driven by their own demons, and are oil and water to the pragmatic cousins.
After the funeral, which Sunday attended by "changing" into a synthetic body, Hector and Lucas take Geoffrey aside to ask him to do them a favor. It seems that there's a safe deposit box in a bank on the moon that Eunice left behind, and they'd like to know what's in it, fearing scandal or anything that would disrupt the smooth operation of the family business. They'd go themselves, but that would draw attention to it. Geoffrey could go, visit his sister (but not mention the box to her) and nobody would think anything of it, which turns out to be an epic miscalculation on the cousins part.
Geoffrey and Sunday share the sort of dislike of Hector and Lucas that you can only build up in a family, but Geoffrey agrees to the errand after the cousins offer to open the corporate purse strings for his research.
So begins our tour of the future. Up a space elevator, then to the moon by ferry, and around the moon by train, Reynolds shows his chops as a hard SF writer by providing a delightful and very credible extension of today's technology onto the moon and beyond. After visiting the bank and discovering that the box holds nothing except a glove from an old spacesuit, Geoffrey takes a train to the dark side of the moon, or at least the side that faces away from the Earth, to visit his sister in the unmonitored zone, where your every act isn't monitored, and your baser impulses aren't kept in check by a global control network that can reach into your head and shock you senseless. But more about that later.
Geoffrey appears on his sister's doorstep with the contents of the box tucked in his travel bag, and after a fairly short tussle with his conscience, spills the beans about his errand and its outcome, exactly as he'd promised the cousins he wouldn't. He's not nearly as forthcoming with the cousins.
The contents of the box provide a puzzle, or a piece of a puzzle that will send both Geoffrey and Sunday to destinations as far apart as the depths of Earth's oceans, to the arid surface of Mars, and beyond that as well to follow the trail of breadcrumbs Eunice laid down 62 years before.† The clues are cryptic, and even the characters wonder what the point of the elaborate game is. On the one hand, it turns out to be a test by Eunice to find out if her descendants are smart enough and plucky enough to handle the pot at the end of the rainbow. On the other hand, it's a device the author uses so that he can have a reason to take us on a grand tour of the solar system, or at least the parts he's fleshed out.
Hector and Lucas want whatever was left behind buried where it can't do any harm. Sunday and Geoffrey want to find out what their grandmother thought was so important that she had to hide it by scattering clues across the solar system that only family members could unravel. Along the way, each faction raises the stakes higher and higher, so that it's much more than just a family squabble, and in fact becomes a quest opposed by or backed by major political factions, including the Chinese on the one hand and the Aquatic Nations, whose panspermian agenda is to extend Earth's biosphere to the stars.
What makes Blue Remembered Earth a pretty good book isn't conflict or crisis, though they drive the characters forward reasonably well. The story zips along with excellent pacing, making you forget that you're holding 500 pages of text, largely because Reynolds is simply a brilliant writer. Geoffrey and Sunday are both engaging characters when seen from inside their own skins, though I can't help but think they'd look a bit petulant from the outside, †and the landscape that the author has contrived is as engaging as any in this middle future genre. If we don't totally screw up, what might we accomplish in the few hundred years? Quite a bit, agree authors like Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Charles Stross.
Robinsonís latest book, 2312, which came out earlier this year as well, shares a number of ideas and elements. It too opens with a funeral for a visionary woman and thrusts unfinished business into the hands of the next generation. Both books are intrigued with ideas about space habitats as reservoirs for Earth's genome, though Robinson uses it to re-seed the Earth and Reynolds is looking out towards the stars.† And each is concerned with keeping a handle on artificial intelligences, though predictably, some leak through in each author's universe.
Stross's work doesn't concern itself with limits, and his Solar System is as full of sentient machines as is Ian Bank's Culture Universe, which is to say they're pretty full. Stross doesn't deal much with the whole biosphere issue either, but my guess is that he's just more determined to have fun with his stories than the other two, who are determined to send a signal from their imagined futures to our perilous present.
In Blue Remembered Earth, humanity has managed to curb its impulses, if not outgrow them, and there's no mention of poverty or want throughout the book. On Earth, everyone's actions are monitored by a low level AI that won't let you cause harm to anyone else. Take a swing at your annoying cousin and the next thing you know you'll be picking yourself up off the ground with a blinding headache. It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but the author puts it out there for us to determine whether or not that's what it takes for us to move beyond our natures to survive.
That becomes an ironic question by the end of the book, and the end of the search for whatever Eunice left behind, because the entire game of teasing out the hidden clues is supposed to be a test for whether or not the family can be trusted with the power she reveals to them at the end.† Her test seems a bit arbitrary, considering that the grandson who takes it allows himself to be blinded by fairly petty peeves, and the cousins are willing to disown him rather than open the box.
Not the family Iíd normally want to had the fate of humanity over to.
On the plus side, it's a coming of age novel of sorts, and there's no question but that brother, sister, and cousins all do a lot of growing up in the process. It does seem a pity that all the action is fundamentally caused by a family squabble though.
Blue Remembered Earth is the first in a trilogy that spans 11,000 years, which no doubt, will give the subsequent novels time to reach the stars, which the title of the first book hints at pretty hard.