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Solar System Space Opera
on January 25, 2012
Alastair Reynolds is known for sweeping, epic, galaxy-wide (and occasionally even intergalactic) space opera. An additional twist comes from his professional background as a physicist: while the science is often wildly speculative, it manages to stay within the bounds of the barely possible better than most space opera. So no faster-than-light travel and no causality violations. Yet somehow he still manages to write up galaxy-wide ancient precursor civilizations, wars that span light-years and aeons, space battles that destroy entire solar systems, and the usual good, clean, space opera fun.
Blue Remembered Earth is painted on a smaller canvas. It is set only about a century and a half in our future, within the Solar System. The more familiar locations, scope, cultures, and characters of the relatively near future are a welcome change of direction.
Reynolds also breaks out of some staid science-fiction conventions. For one thing, in his future world, the dominant cultural, economic, and scientific power is Africa, and all but one of his main characters (Jitendra, of Indian origin) are Africans. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, he doesn't rub your face in it; it's just that much of the action happens in the shadow of Kilimanjar, it's noted that the characters speak Swahili, and the only time somebody's race comes up is if it departs from the norm--i.e., s/he's Chinese or white.
I'm pretty much completely clueless about African cultures, so I have no idea how well--if at all--Reynolds has managed to work in cultural particularities of his Kenyan-Tanzaniyan protagonists. I have a suspicion that a Kenyan or Tanzanian might have written it in more strongly: as it is, the only things that struck me as unusual--other than the décor--were the family ties of the Akinya siblings and cousins. They are a good deal stronger than usually portrayed for typically individualist sci-fi heroes.
Blue Remembered Earth is an optimistic book. That's also a very refreshing change from the ever-grimmer dystopias of many current sci-fi authors, and indeed the sticky end Reynolds envisions for his own Revelation Space universe. In his future, humanity has managed to survive the Anthropocene--the near-catastrophic results of climate change--and has entered a new golden age. War is a barbaric feature of the receding past, crime and disease have been eradicated so thoroughly that an attempted murder in Finland or a death from cancer in Australia make the news in Nairobi, and the ecology has been brought back into balance. Colonization of the Solar System is well under way, with the ones too adventurous to live in the Earth's Surveyed Zones emigrating to more anarchic colonies on the far side of the Moon, or Mars, or even further.
Utopias make for pretty boring stories, though, so naturally there's a fly in the ointment. The story is a straightforward treasure hunt across the Solar System, to uncover a deadly family secret with the potential to change humanity's future, or perhaps destroy it. Yes, suitably epic again, in true Reynolds fashion.
I thoroughly enjoyed Blue Remembered Earth, and am looking forward to further instalments in the Poseidon's Children cycle, which the book begins. There are enough loose ends to make sequels possible, but also like most of Reynolds's work, the novel stands very well on its own. As all good sci-fi, Blue Remembered Earth has a lot to say about the world we live in, by portraying a possible future one.
Besides which, who wouldn't love spaceships and astronauts and Martian colonies and iceteroid mining?