I'm the punchline... I'm the period, the full stop at the end of an immensely long and convoluted argument, a rambling chain of happenstance and contingency stretching from the discovery of fire down in the Olduvai Gorge, through the invention so language and paper and the wheel, through all the unremembered centuries to... this. This condition. Being brought out of hibernation aboard a spaceship orbiting another planet. Being alive in the twenty-second century. Being a thing with a central nervous system complex enough to understand the concept of being a thing with a central nervous system. Simply being. - Sunday Akinya in Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth
I, too, feel like a punchline a lot of the time, though nowhere near so cosmic a one as Sunday Akinya. Where I feel like a punchline is this: I have a fundamental problem with novel-reading, I'm discovering, one that became acutely noticeable while reading Alastair Reynolds' latest novel. And make no mistake -- the problem is most certainly mine and not Mr. Reynolds'. He remains one of my favorite authors, as I've observed before on this blog, and this book is one of his best. Possibly his best. I haven't been able to decide on that as yet.
But one of the things I like best about him is where I have the most trouble with fiction as we know it.
You see, a story, at least in Western literature, starts by setting the scene and introducing the characters, showing us the baseline, the norm. Once that's all established, things must happen to upset this balance, threaten the norm, pull the characters out of their comfort zones and make them do stuff, achieve a goal, change and develop, fight the enemy, solve the problem, and finally establish a new norm, better or worse, it does not matter as long as its different. That's how fiction works.
I must, though, have some kind of serious emotional conservatism when it comes to reading stories, though, because I'm always sad to see the plot take over the milieu. I'm delighted to plunge into a writer's world, meet his imaginary friends, learn how their lives work when they're being ordinary. And I'd be happy to stay there. Why has there always got to be someone messing it up, just when I'm getting to know it, I always internally wail when the villain blows things up or the natural disaster strikes or whatever the first plot coupon may be.
Rarely have I fallen so completely in love with that established norm as I did in this novel, not because it's so idyllic or perfect or beautiful (though in lots of ways it is those things) as because it's just so interesting. Africa is the center of world power in a neural utopia* chock full of space elevators and sophisticated telepresence technology; humans have colonized not only the Moon and Mars but are well on their way towards exploiting the rest of the Solar system, but in a very responsible way. And the biggest debate going on is whether a human-and-intelligent-machine society like Iain M. Banks' Culture gets to go to the stars along with whatever organisms we happen to find useful to us, or whether it should be humans and every other variety of organic life that has evolved on Earth alongside us and just what machines are needed to keep the living things that shall inherit the galaxy alive. What's not to love?
And there's more, for this world, or set of worlds, is brought to us from the perspective of a fascinating young man, one of Reynolds' most satisfying characterizations to date, Geoffrey Akinya, grandson of the female explorer-entrepreneur who made most of this civilization possible and thus a member of one of its most powerful families, but one who has chosen to drop out of that family as much as possible in favor of studying elephants. Really studying elephants. As in taking baby steps toward establishing, via neuro-machinery, what amounts to a Mind Meld with one of them.
And then there's his sister, Sunday, who lives on the Moon in a drop-out society of her own, a "Descrutinized Zone" in which much of the neural machinery that controls anti-social behavior on earth, and thus a lot of the constant contact and data access that goes with that machinery, is dampened or just non-existent. She and hers firmly believe that suppressing that urge to bend or break the rules also suppresses innovation and creativity.
So each lives a rich, vivid and fascinating life that I would enjoy just sort of wandering through, picaresque-style, for hundreds and hundreds of pages. But that's not how novels work. Sigh.
Fortunately, the plot, part thriller, part treasure-hunt through the human-settled Solar System, and yes, part giant sprawling hunk of (nascent) space operatics, is quite satisfying and exciting and all the stuff that everyone else reads a novel for. Reynolds gets better and better at this with each book, and I don't think he's plateaued yet or will anytime soon. As I intimated above, his characters get better with each book, too, richer and lovelier and more believably human**. This is the first of a new series, Poseidon's Children (which pretty obviously refers to the fact that the Green Efflorescence, which is how the people-and-organisms faction refers to their goal of spreading all Earth life through the stars, had its birth among the United Aquatic Nations of Earth [which, get ready for THAT; quite possibly Reynolds' most ravishingly seductive bit of world-building to date]*** -- thus the reader has a pretty good idea of to which side of the Big Argument the balance is likely to tip right away), and I hope that Mr. Reynolds, lovely chap that he is, hurries up with the next one already.
I'm ready for the next punchline. Aren't you?
*Utopia might not be quite the word for it, but neither is dystopia. There is no crime or struggle over resources, which is pretty idyllic, but this is achieved at a scary cost: a central Mechanism catches anti-social or otherwise bad impulses almost before people have them and shuts them down. Neural subjugation to this Mechanism is mandatory from early childhood. Shudder.
**So it's interesting that of all of Reynolds' fiction to date, this is set in the nearest of futures, just a hundred or so years from the present, instead of many hundreds or thousands (millions?) of years as he most often chooses. Are his characters in Blue Remembered Earth simply more enjoyable because less alien? Or is it simply that he's still growing in his craft? It's not to say he hasn't created amazing and memorable characters before -- Volyova, anyone? Remontoire? Galliana? Wendell Floyd? The Gentians? Curtana? But did you like reading about these characters, or did you fall in love with them? I fell in love with Geoffrey and Sunday, and Chama and Gleb too, for that matter. And most of all with Eunice, or rather sim-Eunice, the pioneering grandmother, who has a wonderfully crusty, uphill-both-ways, get-off-my lawn attitude toward what's become of human space travel and settlement. I want to read a prequel novel all about her adventures. Way more fun than Calvin Sylveste!
***It's his amazing talent for science fiction world-building that first sold me on Reynolds. He knocks it out of the park, book after book. I can't think of anyone else who can touch him on his main theme of showing how human minds and technology have run away together toward the end of ratcheting up our species' adaptability to any environment up to eleven. And this book he's applying it to every species, not just ours! Hello, Denizens! Please don't eat me.