(2015) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 724pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09049-1
Humans have just colonised Crucible, a planet orbiting Sixty-One Virginis, and a world sporting a giant alien structure called the Mandala. Also around Sixty-One Virginis are mysterious, advanced craft, that it is presumed are carrying (or are themselves) artificial intelligences, called the Watchmakers. The Watchmakers also are now found in the Earth's system and for the most part they ignore human craft, but when they do take an interest it can be lethal. And then on Crucible a message is detected coming from Gliese 163, an unexplored system some 70 light years from Crucible of which little is known but it is thought that its second planet is a water world that is otherwise Earthlike.
The odd thing about the message is that it seems purposefully directed to humans, indeed one human in particular: Ndge Akinya? Could it be that Eunice Akinya, the grand matriarch of the Akyna family generations ago, made it to Gliese 163 and is inviting Nedge to go there? As it happens the Crucible colony has just completed constructing two starships that are capable of achieving half the speed of light; that is double the velocity of the generation ships originally used to reach Crucible from Earth. And so Nedge joins with a crew and passengers of fifty three to set off for Gliese 163, assuming, that is, the Watchmakers allow it…
Meanwhile, in the Solar system on Mars, Kanu Akinya is a human ambassador to the rogue artificial intelligences (A.I.s) that have evolved from runaway human technology. Humanity is afraid of the 'Martian' A.I.s, and Mars is under quarantine with only Kanu and a colleague as the sole human presences now on that planet. However a human terrorist fringe group radically opposed to the Martian A.I.s drops a booby-trapped spaceship onto the Martian surface and Kanu and his colleague are accidentally killed when the booby-trap goes off. Fortunately for Kanu, his corpse is not in as bad a state as his colleague's and he is brought back to life by the Martian A.I.s. However the human authorities now feel that Kanu has been compromised and so he is replaced as ambassador. Losing a job may be bad news, but it frees Kanu to go elsewhere…
This is the latest (2015) offering from Alastair Reynolds who excels at hard SF, widescreen space opera. It has to be said that all of us on the SF2 Concatenation team into hard SF and space opera love Reynolds as various previous reviews on this site testify including those of: Blue Remembered Earth, Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, Galactic North, House of Suns, The Prefect, Pushing Ice and Revelation Space. This latest offering does not even begin to test this historic trend: it is as every bit up to scratch as we have come to expect from this SF grandmaster.
This completes the 'Elephant' ('Poseidon's Children saga' as it is officially being marketed) loose trilogy ('loose' as each book can be read as a standalone title) that began with Blue Remembered Earth and continued with On the Steel Breeze. However, fear not, it can be read as a standalone as background is given as the story progresses: which is quite easy really as a generation has passed since On the Steel Breeze and 450 years since the events of Blue Remembered Earth, and so current characters have themselves to get acquainted with history. Having said that, if you do come across and read this first then perhaps you would be advised to read the first two in the trilogy in order? Better still, if you have not read any of this trilogy then you are in for a real treat as you can now read them all in order and in quick succession: we had to wait a year or more between each! This really would be for the best as there are thematic arcs. Arguably one of the strongest is co-evolution. One aspect of co-evolution Reynolds explores is that of the co-evolution of humanity and machines: one created the other and then the latter took more control of its own destiny but still found the need to, at least in one instance, integrate with a biological human. Another instance is that of the bonding of a human with an alien machine. Then there is the quasi co-evolution in form of the uplifted elephants.
The novel's downsides? Well the proliferate African names and their relationships with one another can be confusing, and personally I'd recommend keeping a sheet of paper as a bookmark and note as you go along who is who, and what is their relationship with whom: this is what I did but then I am a bear of little brain. The only other downside is its size. This novel is of Hamiltonian proportions at over 700 pages, which is nearly 50% bigger than either of the first two books. I really do hope that Alastair does not get into the habit of writing such toe-bone breakers. It is not that Reynolds is succumbing to bloat: there is no undue padding as there is so much going on. In this case I can almost forgive him as he is weaving together a number of themes and two principal perspectives that start off light years apart, as well as rounding off a story that has lasted half a millennia. However there is so much going in one novel that the reader risks sense-of-wonder overload, so dulling the senses hence the novel's impact. Maybe there should be a break two-thirds of the way through with a note saying put this down for a fortnight and come back to it refreshed? OK. So this is not a serious suggestion, but I am sure you follow my drift. Having said that, notwithstanding the page count problem, this is another cracking Reynolds novel.
What else is there to say? Well, really nothing. This is a book Reynolds' fans will be thoroughly delighted by. And yes, as mentioned, for these folk who have enjoyed the story so far, we do have elephants. (Hooray!) And if you are a fan of widescreen, hard SF, such as Iain Banks' 'Culture' stories or Charles Stross' space opera novels, but have not yet tried Alastair Reynolds, then you genuinely are in for a real treat. This is the definition of early 21st century, cutting-edge space opera!
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