Where Blue Remembered Earth introduced us to Poseidon's Children's First Family of Space, the Akinyas, and their sort-of-deceased (it's complicated) matriarch Eunice, and then sent Eunice's grandchildren traipsing all around the solar system on a high stakes treasure hunt, On the Steel Breeze sends us in two directions as we follow the triple life of Eunice's great-grandaughter Chiku Akinya, daughter of Sunday of Blue Remembered Earth's cosmic punchline. Faced before the novel's narrative begins with a decision she decided she refused to make -- whether to hare off alone after great-grandma's missing spaceship, the Winter Queen, to join the crew of millions aboard an early wave of generational starships setting to colonize a promising exoplanet that just also happens to offer the most tantalizing mystery ever to tease a Kepler-ish space telescope, or to stay home and live a sort-of-ordinary life standing for the Family on Earth -- Chiku has had herself not only cloned twice over, but paid to have the three clones neurally linked via implants and other cyberpunk hoodoo so that they can routinely swap memories and all three of them share in their triple adventures.*
So right away this novel sings with tension as it threatens to split off into three stories, but really we only get two. Chiku Yellow (they designate themselves by colors)'s path keeps her mostly confined to Earth until circumstances force her to start roving around the solar system a little bit like her mother and Uncle Geoffrey had to in the prior book; Chiku Green is off to ride the inside of a re-engineered comet like a high-tech Whorl (c.f. Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun) heading for a planet named Crucible, roughly half of which is covered by an artificial structure/design carved right into the substance of the planet, which humans have named the Mandala, and upon which there are to be cities and other facilities already there and waiting, built by self-assembling giant robots that were sent ahead at a much faster speed than the pokey asteroid arks, for the tens of millions of humans caravaning through interstellar space to their exciting new home.
But of course, the plot has quite a lot to say about that, and it's a doozy, involving artificial intelligences that have sort of accidentally arisen out of the 31st century's giant super-internet (I'm oversimplifying, but also trying to avoid spoilers) and are stone paranoid about being discovered and exterminated, the prior novel's panspermian-versus-machines-and-robots culture wars, the desperate race to develop new technologies on the fly (as in the generational ships' engineers developed engines that let them speed up to 13% of light speed but nobody bothered to figure out how to slow them back down at journey's end until they'd all been on their way for quite a while. Trust me, this thinking makes sense within this weird range of cultures Reynolds has imagined for this far-future anthropocene), political coups and counter-coups within and among the
Plus the powers that are already there at Crucible. Something made that Mandala, you guys. And it's attracted attention before. Dude.
Elephants. As in descendants of the herd the Panspermians were raising in secret on the Moon in Blue Remembered Earth (Elephants on the Moon, you guys! And now elephants on an interstellar spaceship? What next, a shark in a spacesuit? Well, close...) But this is where my tiny soupçon of disappointment comes in because while we get the joyous image and idea of elephants traveling on a spaceship alongside humans, and are teased with the idea of David Brin-style "uplifted" elephants that have the potential to just basically become another sentient race out in space, it's just bare glimpses of them that we get in On the Steel Breeze. This is understandable with everything else that's going on, to a point, but like I said, a bit disappointing. BUT, there is hope. As in hints that an uplifted elephant, a Tantor to use the phrase they themselves prefer, to distinguish them from the ordinary elephants that are also along for the ride, might at last become something besides cargo, however unusual and precious; might be a full-fledged point of view-ish character in the next novel. Or at least a supporting one like, say, a Remontoire. And that would be glorious indeed. So the soupçon of disappointment really just enriches the flavor of the overall recipe. Marmalade ain't marmalade without that bitter orange peel...
And really, I'm just scratching the surface here. There is all of this, and all the atmospherics, the grand sweep and sense of awe at the vast scale of the universe that we always expect from Alastair Reynolds -- plus, I'm delighted to say, some of his best characterizations yet. In the various Chikus, we get fully developed, flawed and 100% relate-able women who bear extraordinary burdens, sometimes falter under them, sometimes heave them up and hurl them at their foes like champs, and are always, always believable, even when dealing with the unbelievable. I've liked a lot of Reynolds' characters before, but this is the first time I really and truly cared and empathized, so that as events came to a head in the novel's last fifth or so I started referring to this novel as On the Steel Stroke because I was so stressed and distressed by what the Chikus Three were dealing with.
You will be, too.
And now, I think I need to go have a lie down.
*This is the first of many things in this novel to just give me the shivers. The good kind. The envious kind. The I wish I could do that right now kind. Just think of it! Who wouldn't want to get to experience each possibility that branches off from a major life decision like that? Not only would it take the sting out of tough life changing decisions -- ok, one of me marries this guy and one of me stays single... or one of me goes off and teaches English abroad and the other stays here and does the community work I've been doing... or one of me stays in college and gets that probably useless PhD in Classics and the other goes out and gets a damn job... whatever it is, you could try it. This would be a way to have it all, people. The good and the bad. See? Shivers.