My second Solar System science fiction book in the past four months: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds. I first read two or three of his early novels about a decade ago. Last appearance on my bookshelf was about five years ago. The author seems to be flying in a more literary orbit these days. Blue Remembered Earth is more character-driven than I remember his other novels, which were more about science fiction ideas. Which isn’t to say this book doesn’t have ideas. It does–and very good ones.
The book bounces back between brother and sister Africans who live 150 years hence on an Earth where China, India, and Africa are the preeminent powers and North America gets one mention in the whole book. Or maybe two. They are members of a powerful and wealthy family that has made its fortune in space exploration. They are also the black sheep in that they care for elephants (brother Geoffrey) and art (sister Sunday) more than they follow the familyline pushing back the frontiers of space, and especially amassing more wealth, prestige, and power.
The action begins when the family matriarch dies. Geoffrey is bribed by his powerful smart-a** cousins to leave his elephant research and go to the moon. There, he finds a spacesuit glove in his grandmother’s safe deposit box. He visits his sister and from there each sets off on largely separate adventures to get to the bottom of some mysterious clues left by the deceased. The reader joins them for some exciting trespass into the Chinese-controlled area of the moon, the ocean floor off the coast of East Africa, Phobos (moon of Mars), the Martian surface, and eventually the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune.
It’s an interesting travelogue. Like the future solar system of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, it seems to move ahead too fast in terms of technology. But like that book, it also paints an optimistic view of the future. Human beings are able to pull the planet back from the catastrophes of climate change, war, and self-destruction. And if the societies don’t seem to be “free” in the sense we know freedom, you don’t find many people living in the wreckage of the Worst Case Scenario. Maybe that’s good. Maybe not.
I wanted to like Blue Remembered Earth more than I did. At times, the characters seemed forced into moods, feelings, and even discoveries. A few surprise elements pop up–these are interesting. The surprise on Mars rescues Sunday, but doesn’t contribute to the big arc that aims the human race into the stars. And that development is telegraphed from the beginning of the novel–I just wondered how they were going to get to it.
The various adventures eventually get to Geoffrey, and by the three-quarter mark of the book, he’s a changed man. I’m still not sure why he did change, other than he was wowed more toward the end by his experiences than he was by flying to the moon and diving into the ocean depths.
The sister is interesting, but not really essential to the book. She seems like a drop-in woman character. The villains, including the cousins, seem cardboard to me. This novel could have been a one-man-show, with a good supporting cast.
Like I said: I wanted to like this book more than I did. There are two surprises at the end that wrap things up, plus a childhood experience remembered that ties up the emotional loose ends. I have a sense Mr Reynolds can write a better book. Clearly, he can handle the Big Ideas of good science fiction. I give him an A-plus for that. He can generate conflict for good characters. But this book could have been more tightly plotted. And if it had been, I think I would have really loved it.