Thursday, 28 March 2013

Blue Remembered Earth: Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes, one book drives a lot more book buying. Back in the days when I read a lot more SF than I seem to have time to read now, I picked up most of Alastair Reynolds early books, largely on the back of them being well written and heavily promoted. Reynolds trafficked in big crunchy scientific ideas and equally big canvases; he's pretty much the 800 pound gorilla of the "you can't travel faster than light, but what would that mean in practice?" school of hard SF space opera. But about ten years ago he brought out a much more modestly scaled book called Century Rain, which was one of the cleverest and most affecting books I read that year. It's wonderfully strong on both character and atmosphere, sketching in two completely different worlds so absorbingly that for once it actually IS kind of a big deal that one of them turns out to be under existential threat.

After that, I bought each of Reynolds books on reflex, in much the way I buy all of Ken McLeod's books on reflex. I like the way that they both use SF as a way to ponder out loud about the way in which technology changes societies, and particularly the way in which societies function collectively. McLeod is openly political in his outlook, while Reynolds is a bit harder to fathom; if there's an agenda in his writing, it's not as blatant as McLeod's leftiness. But when I rant - as I am wont to do - about the way in which SF is the last place where writers are trying to think about the way we are now and where it's going to take us if we don't wise up, it's those two and the one and only Kim Stanley Robinson that make up the bulk of my argument.

Blue Remembered Earth is, I think, intended to be first of a loose sequence of books in much the same way as Reynolds' Revelation Space books turned out to be, the difference here being that the Revelation Space books hold up quite well as stand alone novels, where Blue Remembered Earth started to feel like the start of something about half way through and never really gelled as a book in its own right. Characters and a strong background milieu have been set up by the time the book is done, but there's a lot of wheel spinning before we get there. Much like one of those fantasy books with a map at the beginning, Blue Remembered Earth feels like Reynolds had a whole bunch of cool things he wanted to get into the narrative, but no better idea for getting to them than a scavenger hunt which forces the cast to bounce from one obscure clue to the next on a travelogue from Africa to the Moon and then Mars. It feels arbitrary and forced, and I spent a lot of the middle of the book, when I should have been enjoying all kinds of clever idea, just wishing that Reynolds would get on with driving the book towards the climax. Instead, virtually all the really interesting payoffs are crammed hastily into the last eighty or so pages, which is doubly annoying because you can't help noticing that he CAN get to the point when it suits him; I was grumping away to myself wondering why he couldn't have been this brisk in the some of the more achingly slow passages earlier on.

This may not be as big a flaw once the whole architecture has been shuffled into place; when there's two or three more books taking these ideas off to their logical conclusion, the pace of the first book may not seem as weird and misjudged as it looks now. Clearly, we're not going to be able to make more than a guess at that for years. I suppose, on balance, Reynolds has still got the benefit of the doubt on his side; his existing body of work is solid stuff, though I've never got round to revisiting the earlier books. I think that with this book he's up to something more consciously ambitious than his earlier work, and I wonder how it's going to work out. The Revelation Space books were chunked out at extraordinary speed, one each year from 2000 onwards. That's generally what you see when someone's been working up a body of work over time and then getting a break which allows all of a lifetime's worth of ideas fly loose seemingly all at once. Starting into a new vision from scratch is going to be a lot harder. Sometimes you're looking forward to the next book because you want to see what comes next in a vision of things or the lives of rounded characters; other times, you're squinting in worry, hoping that someone you admire is going to be able to carry it off. 

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