There are some who argue that science fiction is over, that in our modern world of social, economic and environmental strife, the idea of a bright future is naive at best and childish at worst. That much of what's been sold as science fiction in the 00's and 10's has been either jingoistic military porn or apocalyptic dystopias bereft of any trite sense of hope would seem to lend credence to that idea. But whatever became of the notion that SF's popular appeal is that it assures us humanity can in fact have a tomorrow despite all of the woes of day-to-day life? Getting there will take a lot of work, and we won't do it unscathed. But a bright future is still an honorable and even essential goal towards which to strive. Otherwise, well...what's the point?
Alastair Reynolds is having none of it, and Blue Remembered Earth, one of his very best novels, is a refreshing tonic for those of us who have been missing optimistic SF. It presents a vision of humanity in the 22nd century that is at once forward-thinking while acknowledging the real-world problems of the present that we had to get through to get there.
It certainly isn't utopian. The benefits of transhuman technology — minds linked to networks, life extension and so on — come with the price of constant surveillance and intrusive safeguards against people's violent impulses. You can be taken down with a zap to the cortex even for throwing a punch at someone. But there seems to be little to no totalitarian, technocratic oppression as part of this package. Those who do not wish to live in the Surveilled World are free to emigrate to the Descrutinized Zone on the moon's dark side, or join the Panspermian Initiative living in an underwater nation beneath the Indian Ocean, many of whose members have had themselves fully body-modded into mermen. Other colonies exist into the outer solar system. Is the Surveilled World necessarily an evil concept? Or was it just the tough choice we had to make as a species to avoid nearly destroying ourselves ever again? After all, snow is finally returning to the peak of Kilimanjaro.
In this healing Earth, the former superpowers are long gone. Africa has risen as the leading terrestrial economic power, and the Akinya Corporation, a dynastic family enterprise, are at the top of the ladder. They're not a close family. Geoffrey has turned his back on the family business, preferring to devote himself to the study of the area's elephants, especially one herd whose matriarch he's attempting to bond with neurally. Geoffrey's sister Sunday has chosen the boho artist's life up on the moon. Cousins Hector and Lucas are pure company men, running the corporation with ruthless devotion and efficiency.
The story begins with the death of Eunice Akinya, the family matriarch, who had spent most of the latter decades of her life in self-exile, in a habitat in cislunar space. Hector and Lucas, not wishing to alarm the markets by giving the appearance of any corporate disarray, offer Geoffrey — who cannot stand them at the best of times — major funding for his elephant research if he will run an unusual errand for them on the moon. A review of Eunice's affairs has revealed a hitherto unknown safe deposit box in a lunar bank, and the cousins want to know what's in it. It turns out to be a spacesuit glove. Insignificant on its own, it's soon found to hold a secret leading to other buried clues located elsewhere on the moon, and even on Phobos and Mars. While doing their best to avoid giving too much information to their hated cousins, Sunday ends up heading to Mars to pursue further leads while Geoffrey stays closer to home. There, he learns that the Panspermian Initiative — a group devoted, with nearly religious fervor, to the goal of human colonization of deep space — had a deeper relationship with Eunice than any of the family had realized. They, too, are interested in what secrets Eunice may have been hiding throughout the system, and what her purpose was in doing so.
As with many epic quests, it's the journey that matters more than the destination. In Blue Remembered Earth, Reynolds immerses readers in a vivid, breathing, stunningly textured near-future to greater success than even in his much-loved Revelation Space trilogy. We wander the African plains among elephants, watch a robot cage-match in slowed time on the moon, and escape a Martian colony of predatory, self-evolved, feral machines. Reynolds takes us from the depths of Earth's oceans to the depths of trans-Neptunian space, and the journey, at every stage, evokes the sense of wonder that made us all SF devotees in the first place.
I admired the shift away from a purely Western focus. The story appears to have almost entirely non-white characters. There's nothing in the way of political correctness about it. Reynolds is doing what speculative fiction should: anticipating what human civilization might look like if the Western democracies in fact self-destruct, through economic disarray, destruction of the environment (sea levels are significantly higher, a big reason that an oceanic nation has been founded), too much political brinksmanship. Too long has hard SF been solely a white man's genre. Reynolds' acknowledgment of a big wide world outside the west, whose cultures and ideas may have so much more to contribute to humanity's progress than tradition has allowed, goes a long way toward making this story feel fresh. Blue Remembered Earth respects the groundwork laid by the generation of Clarke while moving forward in its own direction. It is one of the best novels of 2012, and a book that brings science fiction, after too many years of reactionary gloom and doom, back to the kind of future where men and women could look up at the stars, and dream.
Followed by On the Steel Breeze.