Fiction Reviews

On the Steel Breeze

(2013) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 483pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09045-3


It is the 24th century and Chiku is travelling between asteroid starships within a caravan of craft travelling together from Earth to a planet called Crucible 28 light years away. The caravan of ships is 60 years into its journey and, travelling at sub-light speed, has 90 years to go.  As Chiku it approaching her own asteroid ship there is a massive explosion.

We, the readers, soon find out that the caravan of ships has been building up too much speed. This was done so as to shorten the interstellar journey, and with the hope that the caravan would develop new propulsion technology so as to be able to slow down at their destination in time: the alternative would be to sail past Crucible at speed. The cause of the massive explosion was illicit research into a prospective new propulsion system.

But why was the research illicit? Well, the caravan is made up of these giant asteroid ships that each carry millions of people: they are in effect travelling cities. Each asteroid ship is largely self-sufficient and if it does need anything then it can invariably be found or made by one of the other ships. Consequently, being so long into the mission some have decided to foresake the mission goal and travel further. With this in mind, not everyone wants to research into new propulsion. However Chiku has other concerns.

Sent ahead of the caravan were 'providers', giant robots of the kind that had been used to help reform the resource depleted and globally warmed Earth. These providers were to build cities for the caravans millions, and the millions more in subsequent following caravans. Have the providers fulfilled their programming?

Chiku is also beginning to get worried that an artificial intelligence on Earth has gone with the providers. And then there is the clearly artificial structure on Crucible that is so big that it can be seen from the Solar system's mode advanced space telescopes…

Meanwhile, back on Earth Chiku is being haunted by a data ghost…

Hang on, Chiku in between the stars and at the same time is light years away back on Earth! How can this be? Well, when Chiku rejuvenated herself (there is longevity medicine in the future) she also created two clones and copied her mind onto them. Because she herself had been rejuvenated and had clones made the result was effectively three identical people with identical memories up to the point where they split. And because they have mind-copying technology, the clones can recombine their new memories in the future should they wish. Indeed the data ghost haunting the Chiku on Earth is a memory pack message from Chiku in space. However a change in data platforms (you know how it is with Microsoft updating every other year) has turned a temporary message block into a permanent one and so the message has ended up as a ghost unable to get through…

On The Steel Breeze is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. Though On The Steel Breeze is sufficiently self-contained to be read as a stand-alone, there is a fair bit of referencing Blue Remembered Earth that it is probably better if you read that first. Do that, and you find out why elephants are so important. Forget snakes on planes (film), or dinosaurs on spaceships (Dr Who episode): what is real classy is elephants in giant generation ships.

Perhaps the Blue Remembered Earth reference I liked best in On The Steel Breeze was when Chiku looked up at the Moon. There she could clearly see the lights of all the – now large – settlements that cover the surface: in fact she could only see the Moon in its 'natural' state with computerised modification of the image (all humans in the 24th century have such augmentation). There is a similar scene in reverse in Blue Remembered Earth where a couple of generations earlier the settlements on the Moon were so small so as to be invisible on Earth but could be highlighted by computerised enhancement of the image.

And along the way we get a number of sojourns including to: a Martian moon, out to the gas giants, and a scary trip to the surface of Venus. (It is not a nice place.) Paralleling this there are events out in interstellar space with the caravan of ships. These two strands to On The Steel Breeze, though separated by light years, are successfully brought together through longevity and hibernation skipover so that in a very real sense the two Chikus get to interact.

And then there are all the other odds and ends (as if the above was not enough) that will delight the hard SF fan. These may well include, for some, some new stuff. One of these for me was the Lyapunov exponent.

Before I conclude, it is worth commenting on On The Steel Breeze's position within SF. The development of science fiction can be viewed as an on-going conversation among authors and film screen-story writers/directors. In this context Reynolds' 'Elephant' trilogy ('Poseidon's Children' saga as it is officially being marketed) two books in does have some thematic or at least trope similarities to Paul McAuley's Quiet War books (that also include In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires). Despite being very different sets of work, both are hard SF space operas that err towards the mundane SF end of the spectrum (as opposed to the science fantasy end). Both involve travel to a nearby star system. Both have plot strands within the Solar system and the nearby star system. Both have alien presences in the nearby star system. Both see genetically enhanced/modified humans. And both the authors are British and published by the same imprint and they do occasionally talk to each other. So maybe, just maybe, albeit subconsciously, they are bouncing themes off each other? (I am just musing; take this with a pinch of salt. It is though a little intriguing.)

Reynolds has done it again. Each time I read one of his I think it his best yet before my mind turns back to some of his earlier work. Suffice to say that he maintains his standards with On The Steel Breeze. I can't wait for the final in Reynolds' 'Elephants' (alternatively marketed as 'Neptune's Children') trilogy.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Duncan's review of the On the Steel Breeze mass-market paperback.

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