Fiction Reviews

The Medusa Chronicles

(2016) Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 441pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21018-9


Years after an accident on a dirigible, Captain Howard Falcon is left crippled. But don't worry, we can rebuild him; faster, better… (though sometimes 'faster' is not 'better'). In his augmented form he pilots a solo mission in a balloon craft into the gaseous clouds of Jupiter where he discovers floating life…  Jump ahead more years and Howard Falcon is at sea aboard a great submarine along with Captain Matthew Springer another astronaut famous for his Pluto expedition, at a reception with the President. Howard Falcon himself was the grandson of astronaut Seth Springer who back in 1968 most famously went to space to save the world. (Clearly we are in a parallel universe and this Earth with its history is not our Earth.) And then the giant submarine become the focus of a terrorist attack with a bomb attached to the hull.

Jumping ahead a bit, when volatile compounds stop being sent by an automated plant from the outer Solar System, a person is needed to go and investigate.  The augmented Captain Falcon is chosen to go.  What he finds will be the start of something that will turn into a great war that ravages Mercury, and the Moon and lead to a chilling threat for humanity to vacate the Earth in just 500 years…

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds have crafted, not just an interplanetary space opera thriller but, a homage and tribute to the author Arthur C. Clarke.  Both authors have extensively read Clarke's novels, and Stephen has actually written a few with the man himself including Time's Eye and Sunstorm. And, of course, both author have had excellent, solo writing careers that includes some fine space opera: Baxter's includes his 'Xeelee' sequence and Reynolds with his 'Revelation Space' sequence.  Importantly, this novel is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's 1971 short story 'A Meeting with Medusa'.  Make no mistake, this novel is stands firmly on Clarkean foundations.

As you would expect with any homage there are references to Clarke's other works. Notably, there is both a reference to a film beginning with apes using bones and, more indirectly, a variation of the black monolith. Some of these are obvious nods and one is hidden within a more obvious reference: there is a mention of a Sean Connery film which the authors in an afterword reveal is Meteor (1979) but they do not divulge that the trope-related film Deep Impact (1998) is often attributed as having its inspiration drawn from Clarke's own novel The Hammer of God (1993).  Additionally, along the way we get mentions of things like the Hofstader-Mobius conflict (which was behind the Hal malfunction in 2001: A Space Odyssey that led to the film's pod bay door scene).

And, of course, in addition to the direct references there are the SFnal tropes and themes that Clarke explored. So we get the toys: a variety of interplanetary craft, bases across the Solar System, Mars colonised and artificial intelligence. So from the off we can expect machines to be at the heart of the story; indeed, the machine-human relationship is the principal one explored. This last is further contrasted with the super-intelligent chimpanzees or 'simps' that have been artificially enhanced (or 'uplifted' as David Brin would have it).  But Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds do bring their own new approaches to this novel.  Both authors have in the past had protagonists play their roles across many years beyond that of a normal human lifespan. This happens also to Howard Falcon through both artificial hibernation and biomedical/cybernetic technology. He therefore provides the necessary long-lasting perspective that enables the plot to unfold as well as a tension point with his being half-human and non biological half-machine that in turn contrasts with the relationship between the biological humans and equally biological but non-human simps.

Following a half-page, bare bones, briefest of summaries of Arthur Clarke's short story, 'A Meeting with Medusa', and a three-page Baxter-Reynolds' flashback to Howard Falcon as a child, the story itself properly begins with a slight grinding of gears and a squeal of tyres before it ploughs forward into a high-octane adventure.  I have to say that I found this start a little disconcerting as it both served to launch the novel by introducing some of the key characters and also to provide an info-dump on 'A Meeting with Medusa' with the extent of Falcon's true state not revealed to the reader until a little way in. Indeed I was so unsettled that, around page 50, I put the book down and sought out Clarkes' story 'A Meeting with Medusa'. That made it all much clearer; not only could I see that this novel, The Medusa Chronicles effectively continues Clarke's 'A Meeting with Medusa' but that Reynolds and Baxter were following the first short story's delay of reveal as to the extent of the protagonist's state.  Now, we are informed in a publisher preface that permission to use 'A Meeting with Medusa' as the source inspiration for The Medusa Chronicles was kindly granted by the Clarke estate, but to my mind this novel would have greatly benefited from beginning with the actual short story itself and then a revised opening to the sequel novel.  I cannot stress this too much and sincerely hope that upon reflection the authors and publishers seriously consider this suggestion and, Clarke's estate permitting, give us a special edition in a couple of year's time. This really would be worth it. After all, if special editions are good enough for films then they certainly are, where appropriate, for SF in its written form.  Here there is history. For example, the 1978 Corgi twin edition of Clarke's The Lion of Comarre and Against the Fall of Night that both laid the ground for The City and the Stars (1956).

As it is The Medusa Chronicles is a first rate interplanetary space opera that works on its own terms. Youngsters, those (currently) under thirty who may not be familiar with Clarke's work, will be in for a treat and, worry not, they need not know of Clarke or get off on the Clarke references and allusions: this novel stands on its own two feet perfectly well with plenty of sense-of-wonder and story-telling to sustain such readers.  Meanwhile for old hands, with their fair share of Clarke's works already on their shelves, this novel will really speak to them and, if you listen closely, you can almost imagine hearing Clarke's own voice.  Maybe I let my imagination and nostalgia run away, but I betcha he would have gotton off on this Baxter-Reynolds' take.

Jonathan Cowie

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