Fiction Reviews

On the Steel Breeze

(2013) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 8.99, pbk, 517pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09047-7


If I had not looked up On the Steel Breeze on the Internet, I wouldn't have known it was part of a series. There's nothing to say that on the jacket or inside. It is in fact the second of a trilogy called 'Poseidon's Children', following Blue Remembered Earth, which could have been quite important to know because the genetically modified sea-dwelling merfolk in this book are not principal players; but it is not important because this one succeeds as a stand-alone novel. In reviewing for SF² Concatenation and Interzone I try to avoid joining series in mid-flow, but when opting for titles to review I have repeatedly been fooled by plot summaries which did not make clear the books' status. It is a real pleasure to find one which, although part of a series, can be read alone, whose past events are genuinely in the past rather than intruding into the later book, and which is not burdened with repositioning the characters for whatever they're going to be doing in the next instalment.Seemingly the events of On the Steel Breeze are set two centuries after those of Blue Remembered Earth, and again that could have been a problem because longevity is available to the characters, through repeated rejuvenation treatment, unless the individual is denied it by judicial fiat. But although the protagonist is the daughter of the principal characters in the previous novel, they are no longer around, and the historical figures who are still around survive in very different form.

In this book the Solar System of the 23rd century is spanned by an evolutionary stage of what the late Chris Boyce called the Net, in his contribution to my Man and the Planets (1983), and foresaw as the next evolutionary development of humanity: a linked culture of minds and machines in which, theoretically, all bodies (organic and artificial) could be occupied by all minds. At the stage Reynolds portrays, the process has not become universal, and different practitioners have reached different stages of advancement within it.

One of the more advanced is Chiku, a woman who has three distinct cloned existences, now widely separated in space and time. They exchange recordings across those gulfs which are not just messages but full imprints of personality, which they are able to absorb with remarkable ease. Personally I find that whenever I go on a journey, I am always surprised to find things unchanged when I get back because I have changed in the meantime. Trying to superimpose the two versions of my personality would be difficult if not traumatic even after weeks, let alone decades or more. If the mind-machine Net could smooth out that process, it would raise the danger which Chris Boyce's hearers picked on when he first advanced the concept of the Net in the mid-70s, that human individuality would be submerged or erased as Boyce himself put it on further thought, 'the spirit of the beehive is in this' and yet the greater opportunities which the Net offers will lure the participants into ever-deeper immersion.

Of the three versions of Chiku, one leads a peaceful and relatively happy life on Earth, though estranged from her son who has elected to join the merfolk. A second is missing, having embarked on a long space mission to find a missing ancestor; and the third is a participant in a multi-worldship-mission to establish human settlement on Crucible, an Earthlike world of another star, even though it bears a large marking called the Mandala which has evidently been created by some other form of intelligence.

A number of things about the 'holoship' mission strike one as odd. One is that although the would-be settlers don't know who built the Mandala or might be watching over it, they have sent giant robots ahead to make over Crucible with cities and supporting structures to provide for an incoming population of millions. Another is that they have launched without the propellant needed to slow down at their destination, on the assumption that a more powerful engine will be developed while they're in flight and after a couple of disastrous accidents en route, a conservative faction has gained control and banned further research, on pain of death or at least withdrawal of longevity.

Reading between the lines, quite a lot can be deduced from that. In the 1970s, the favoured method for interstellar propulsion (for instance in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero) was the Bussard ramscoop, until T. A. Heppenheimer demonstrated that above 0.05% of light speed, it would function as a brake. A brake is very useful, allowing big savings in the propellant that has to be carried, but the ramscoop is not the technology the researchers here are looking for; even though the holoships will need to gather material from interstellar space for life-support, in the long term, if the ships do not stop. People were doing calculations on the long-term losses from world ships, due to leakage, as long ago as the early 1950s.

The ships are cruising at 13% of light speed, just 1% above the cruise velocity of the British Interplanetary Society's proposed Daedalus interstellar probe, and once the propulsion problem is solved, a shuttle is sent ahead at a further 0.12 c allowing the Daedalus figures to be used as a basis for calculations here. The shuttle's deceleration is at 10g, taking only 200 hours to slow down from 25% of light speed and a back-of-the-envelope comparison with the acceleration and terminal velocity of the Daedalus probe shows that is indeed correct. It looks as if the initial launch from the Solar System was done with Daedalus pulsed fusion, and what they are trying to invent for the deceleration is photon drive which would require onboard generation of antimatter in bulk, and would explain the disastrous accidents.

Launching the mission before the slowdown problem has been solved would help to prevent the scenario in van Vogt's story 'Far Centaurus', where the first colony mission is overtaken in flight and arrives to find its target system already settled and developed. But the programme in On the Steel Breeze in on a huge scale, with colony ships 40 kilometres in length, each carrying millions of people and travelling in fleets called 'caravans', with more caravans following behind and still more embarking for other stars meantime. Although not portrayed as such, for the programme to be politically acceptable it must be happening in response to enormous population pressure; and that was one of the situations which the Man and the Planets discussion group saw developing in response to Boyce's 'beehive' problem. To prevent homogenisation, the Net society would have to maintain high population growth, with individual values being emphasised and strengthened before assimilation as we see happening here in the underwater communities, in particular but there would also have to be mass emigration, especially in a context of longevity or immortality, to avoid stagnation.

Even so, the Malthusian pressures would eventually lead to the dead end of a Dyson civilisation, all examples of which in SF (including my own) have significantly been portrayed in a state of collapse. Reynolds foresees major problems arising even sooner, and at the end of the novel he portrays a truly drastic solution, setting the scene for a completely different scenario in the third volume of the trilogy.

As should be apparent, this is a novel which hard SF fans like myself can really get their teeth into, and there are some very nice touches. Don't miss the throwaway reference to Lyapunov mathematics, which are becoming very important in orbital dynamics, especially NASA's plan to pull a small asteroid into orbit round the Moon for study. There are some pleasing lighter notes, too also not to be missed is the Masai translation of the word 'Cess-na'. And as I said at the start, one of its great strengths is that it can be read alone, even though it's part of a series. For reasons of health and pressure of other work, I have decided to stand down from the ranks of SF2 Concatenation fiction reviewers after five happy years, and it is a real pleasure to be able to bow out by reviewing a book which I have so much enjoyed.

As for what the colonists find when they do reach Crucible I will not spoil it, but those who have read Chris Boyce's prizewinning novel Catchworld will not be totally surprised.

Duncan Lunan

See also Jonathan's review of the On the Steel Breeze hardback.

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