Romantic Materialism

By Javier MartinezJune 7, 2012

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

ALISTAIR REYNOLDS'S Blue Remembered Earth is an engrossing opening to his projected "Poseidon's Children" trilogy. Reynolds is among the first guard of practitioners of the New Space Opera, a flourishing literary movement that began as a mostly British phenomenon. New Space Opera incorporates contemporary political, economic, and social concerns into frameworks of story that first emerged in the early SF pulps. Yet BRE very consciously eschews the galaxy-spanning narratives embraced by, say, fellow Brit Peter F. Hamilton in his most recent "Void Trilogy" (2007-2010), choosing instead to create a limited but emotionally stirring sense of wonder, and focusing on humanity's niche in the galactic void. Readers will not find in BRE the brooding and often doomed tone characteristic of the British New Wave of the 1960s and '70s, nor will they encounter the gritty yet sometimes sophomoric voice of the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s and '90s. What they will find instead is a small-scale space opera (the action never leaves our solar system) tempered by technological limitations (there is no faster-than-light drive) but informed by an infectious sense of optimism about humanity's future. BRE is a deeply romantic novel that updates a hallowed strain of SF, showcasing its most powerful qualities.

BRE is at its most basic level a quest narrative. Geoffrey Akinya belongs to the latest generation of a moneyed and powerful African family. He is the grandson of Eunice Akinya, a near-mythic figure who built the Akinya business empire. Geoffrey is no businessman, however, spending his days studying the elephants of the Amboseli Basin; yet his role as outsider changes when he accepts a proposal from his two cousins, Hector and Lucas Akinya, to travel to the moon to claim a safety deposit box that Eunice secreted away before her death. What follows is a scavenger hunt that finds Geoffrey joined by his sister Sunday, a struggling artist who leads a bohemian life on the moon. Along for the ride are Jitendra, Sunday's boyfriend, and Jumai, Geoffrey's adventurous ex-girlfriend.

As the siblings follow Eunice's trail of clues, they align themselves with a couple of renegade scientists who share Geoffrey's love of elephants. The siblings also join with representatives from the Panspermian Initiative, a movement dedicated to the colonization of space and the transformation of the human body, and with a construct of Eunice Akinya, a living incarnation of all the information available on the matriarch's life. The protagonists' adventures furnish a vehicle for evoking this wonder-riddled future: a trip below the ocean to the United Aquatic Nations, the home of the Pans; a trip to Mars where Sunday and Jitendra explore the Evolvarium, a landscape populated by semi-sentient machines that vie for survival by constantly reconfiguring and updating themselves; an encounter with The Aggregate, the Evolvarium's largest and most dangerous predator; a couple of trips on the Earth-to-Moon space elevator; a jaunt to the Kuiper Belt in orbit around Neptune; and a glimpse of an extraterrestrial artifact that will figure prominently, I am sure, in the projected sequels.

BRE takes place in the second half of the twenty-second century, around 2160, well after the "five-point-nine-kiloyear event" - an "aridification episode, a great dying" - that dramatically changed Earth's climate. And yet humanity endured. As one character puts it:

"Look at this planet. It's still beautiful. It's still ours, still our home. The oceans rose, the atmosphere warmed up, the weather went ape-shit, we had stupid, needless wars. And yet we still found a way to ride it out, to stay alive. To do more than just survive. To come out of all that and still feel like we have a home."

This home now includes colonies on the moon and Mars, and industrial parks in the orbits of the outer planets. A globe-encompassing belt of solar arrays has solved the world's energy crisis:

The energy belt stretched for thousands of kilometers, from the Middle East out into the Atlantic, across the ocean to the Southern United States, and it wrapped humming superconducting tentacles around the rest of the planet, giving power to the dense new conurbations in Scandinavia, Greenland, Patagonia and Western Antarctica. Where there had been ice a hundred and fifty years ago, much was now green or the worm bruised grey of dense urban infrastructure.

This passage captures simultaneously the disasters of the past and the ongoing promise of the present: "By some measure, the energy belt was evidence of a global calamity, the visible symptom of a debilitating planetary crisis. It was also, inarguably, something rather wonderful to behold." Everyone in this future society is equipped from birth with an Aug - think of a twenty-second century set of internalized Google Glasses that provide a never-ending flow of information and continued embeddedness in the technoscape. Extrapolating upon existing technology is a staple of science fiction, and these ideas are nothing new, though Reynolds handles them with his typical narrative panache.

A more interesting play on future technology is the Mechanism, a Big-Brother-like surveillance and regulatory program humanity has created to keep itself in check. "Devolv[ing] absolute authority to the Mechanism" may strike us as cause for concern, but as one character puts it:

"It wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to us. We're all living in a totalitarian state, but for the most part it's a benign, kindly dictatorship. It allows us to do most things except suffer accidents and commit crimes. And now the Surveilled World doesn't even end at the edge of space. It's a notion, a mode of existence, spreading out into the solar system at the same rate as the human expansion front."

This concept half a century ago would likely have been depicted as a sinister hive-mind, a metaphor for global communism, that our protagonist would rally against and overthrow armed only with his smarts and can-do attitude. BRE moves away from this libertarian old-guard position, upheld by such pulp-era titans as John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and Poul Anderson - not to mention their ideological heirs, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and the stable of writers at Baen Books.

The ideological shift from individualism toward techno-collectivism is, if no less problematic, evidence of a left-leaning vision in Reynolds's work. A conventional history of the genre can trace the leftist turn in SF back several decades to at least the 1950s, with the pioneering social satire featured in Galaxy magazine. But Reynolds's lineage is more complex: he clearly owes a huge debt to those authors central to the early decades of the genre (certainly the future-history detailed in his "Inhibitor" series is a nod to Heinlein's work, if not his ideology), but he melds this traditionalism with elements culled from the writers of the1960s and '70s - such as John Brunner, Barry N. Malzberg, and Barrington J. Bayley - who turned routine space adventures into more meditative excursions. At the same time, Reynolds expresses an exuberance that aligns him with the outer-space quasi-mysticism of Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Hoyle. Reynolds's romanticism, however, is not transcendental but purely material, a celebration of the endless possibilities of secular culture and the richness of experience technology promises.

Even as Reynolds introduces one remarkable idea after another, there is a sense of humanity's smallness in the overall scheme of things. The reader is constantly reminded of just how much more there is to accomplish, even as the characters are making their way through a near-utopic landscape filled with all manner of wonders. And there is a playful irony at work in the novel, too. Some of the most romantic statements are voiced by the construct of Eunice Akinya, a posthuman artifact who works to instill in the characters a grand vision of the universe. As Geoffrey is approaching Earth on the space elevator, Eunice says to him, "It's beautiful, isn't it? . . . Not just the world, but that we're here, alive, able to see it." Sunday voices a similar sentiment to Jitendra when they first gaze upon Mars: "It's a world. Worlds are wonderful." It is telling, I think, that the most romantic sentiments are reserved for observations of the natural environment - a kind of cosmic pastoralism that seamlessly meshes technological fetishization with effusiveness over the natural glories of the universe.

As is the case with the very best SF writers, Reynolds engages in rich dialogue with the "megatext" of ideas that comprises the genre; yet though he freely borrows from this story toolkit, his overall vision in BRE is clearly his own. He has not always been so successful: his previous novel, Terminal World (2010), read like a laundry-list of generic staples, and the narrative lacked the élan that has informed Reynolds's best work (whether couched in noir grittiness, as in Chasm City [2001], or enthusiastically displayed, as in Pushing Ice [2005]). As with all romantics, Reynolds's recurring theme is humanity's collective and multiform dreams. The closing line of his SF crime novel The Prefect (2007) speaks directly to this theme: "Beautiful human dreams." But dreams, whether collective or individual, are also calls to action, and human agency in a universe rich with alien and technological intelligences is central to Reynolds's novels and to the SF field. Geoffrey reminds us of this secularism in BRE's's closing lines:

"We have been clever, and on occasion we have been foolish. For smart monkeys, we can, when the mood takes us, be exceedingly stupid. But it was cleverness that brought us to this point, and it is only cleverness that will serve us from now on.

"We have no time for anything else."

BRE is, ultimately, a collection of conflicting "isms": individualism, collectivism, romanticism, capitalism, expansionism, escapism. The ability to integrate such competing notions into a stable narrative speaks to the ideological power of the best SF; it also demonstrates Reynolds's genre mastery. Future installments in the "Poseidon's Children" series will further flesh out Geoffrey Akinya's story and bring it to its eventual conclusion. More importantly, the projected series - and the work Reynolds has yet to produce (he is only in his mid-40s) - will tell us much about the state of SF in the early twenty-first century.


LARB Contributor

Javier A. Martínez holds a B.A. from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Since 2002 he has been Managing Editor of Extrapolation, an international and peer-reviewed journal published by Liverpool University Press that runs essays on science fiction and fantasy, and promotes innovative work that considers the place of speculative texts in contemporary culture. His essays and reviews have appeared in Dead Reckonings, Extrapolation, Science Fiction Film and Television, The Science Fiction Research Association Review, Science Fiction Studies, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is currently Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at The University of Texas at Brownsville.




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