Poseidon's Wake (Poseidon's Children)
by Alastair Reynolds
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00X5937LW
Date: 02 February 2016
Poseidon's Wake is the third book in Alastair Reynolds' Poseidon's Children trilogy that follows the multi-generational adventures of the Akinya family. The first two books were excellent; this one was not quite up to the same level, although still very good. The book suffers a bit from dull spots, and the ending does not seem as grand as the scale of this trilogy deserves. Overall, Poseidon's Wake is flawed but ambitious and well worth reading as it retains Reynolds' trademark combination of accurate science and thoughtful speculation about the future. Everyone who enjoys large-scale science fiction should read this trilogy.
Each book in the Poseidon's Children trilogy follows a different generation of the African Akinya family. This book has two main characters, from two different generations. In the last book, On the Steel Breeze, Chiku Akinya had herself cloned into three bodies--one joined an expedition to colonize Crucible, the first settlement outside our solar system, while another stayed in our solar system. This book's main characters are Kanu, the son of the solar system Chiku, and Goma, the granddaughter of the Crucible Chiku (the third Chiku did not have children).
Goma's mother, Ndege, is under house arrest on Crucible for an experiment that seemingly caused the destruction of a colony ship with 17,400 people aboard. When a radio transmission from a supposedly unexplored star tens of light-years away says "Send Ndege" in Swahili, Ndege's brother Mposi persuades her to join an expedition to find the source of the signal, which they believe was sent by Chiku. Due to Ndege's ill-health, Mposi and Goma go in her place. Since Goma and her wife are scientists working with Crucible's uplifted elephants who are gradually losing their intelligence, they are especially interested that one of Chiku's companions when she left Crucible was the super-intelligent elephant Dakota.
Meanwhile, Kanu, a diplomat to the machine intelligences of Mars, is injured in a terrorist action. Although the machines save his life, he loses his position because the human governments fear the rebuilding left him under machine influence. Instead, he develops an interest in the art of his grandmother, Sunday Akinya, which leads him to encounter his ex-wife and visit Europa. There, he learns that the machine intelligences had also intercepted the signal and enlisted his help to follow the signal and put the Martian intelligences in touch with alien machine intelligences of the Watchkeepers, as well as the machine intelligence based on Eunice.
In alternating chapters, the book tells how each protagonist journeys through space to the signal's source and the conflicts that develop when they arrive. The book ultimately reveals more (but not all) about the Watchkeepers and the alien Mandalas they watch.
Reynolds is careful to avoid making his characters too perfect. While Goma's life as a lesbian is completely normal in this future society, she grew up isolated, as her mother was under house arrest and despised by many who believe her actions caused the death of thousands. This makes Goma frequently suspicious of others, especially of the religious fanatic Second Chance movement. Kanu too is an outsider, a former aquatic merman, he says he is "too ancient and strange for most people to feel comfortable around." Kanu's relationship with his ex-wife, Nissa, who thinks Kanu (and the machine intelligences) used her to get Kanu in a position to track the signal, is very well done. At the same time, Nissa resents it when Kanu leaves her behind, thinking it unfair for her to be endangered by his problems.
Poseidon's Wake is thoughtful science fiction, with a lot of speculation on the nature of different types of intelligence. At times the philosophy seems to get in the way of the story. A lot of time passes while the ships are in motion; although Reynolds tries to liven this up with a murder mystery plotline, this feels somewhat tacked-on. Still, this is the type of book that rewards re-reading. I suspect some of the perceived pacing problems seen by a reader impatient to find out what happens next will be less visible on re-reads.
The whole Poseidon's Children series is not for readers who want lots of action and big space battles. This is epic science fiction for readers who want thought-provoking science fiction, alien intelligences, and mysterious machines, and true explorations into cutting-edge science. Readers could possibly understand this volume without reading the previous ones, but it does build on the developments in the earlier books. Although Poseidon's Wake has flaws, possibly more than the previous books, and an ending that did not wrap everything into an impressive conclusion, it still seems more ambitious than most new science fiction. It is good that Alastair Reynolds continues to stretch as an author, instead of repeating himself. Recommended.