Blue Remembered Earth feels a lot like Alastair Reynolds sticking a middle finger up at all those pompous critics who like to posit that science fiction writers can’t ‘do’ characterisation. The book is essentially Reynolds’ take on that classic literary staple the “family saga” (or maybe an attempt to propagate a new sub-genre: the family saga IN SPACE), and explores the tensions, upsets and disloyalties that rise to the surface when a fracted and disparate family is forced together following the death of a long-standing matriarch. As such, the novel is significantly less batshit insane than his previous book, the steampunk-esque Terminal World; and in fact BRE is somewhat difficult to place in Reynolds’ oeuvre as a whole, coming as it does from a literary tradition more concerned with the microscopic examination of human relationships than the exploration of big, brain-hurty sci-fi ideas that I’d usually associate with his writing.
Idiosyncratically, at least, this is still very much an Alastair Reynolds novel: there’s a fierce inventiveness coupled with his attendant attention to rigorous scientific fidelity; but what’s most striking about the book is also perhaps what’s most unexpected; a tender and convincing look at individual responses to death: from grief to epiphany to opportunistic greed; and the re-kindling of a long-neglected brother-sister relationship. This casting of siblings as the de facto ‘main characters’ brings a refreshing and playful dynamic to the standard boy-girl protagonist duo by removing the trite will-they-won’t-they sexual subtext that would otherwise colour such a proximal and intense relationship, instead allowing for a keener focus on the moral and political tensions that divide the two – after all, unlike lovers, Geoffrey and Sunday are stuck with each other for life. Having read BRE, I’ve actually realised what an under-used literary pair-up the brother-sister combination is; I’d like to see it more often.
So, yeah, Blue Remembered Earth is a pretty radical change of direction for Alastair Reynolds – not just in terms of its narrative focus on death and family, but also in terms of its setting: near-future Africa. I admit I was worried when I first heard that Reynolds was writing a novel with an almost exclusively black African cast – somewhere in the dusty corridors of my mind some cultural misappropriation alarms were sounding (don’t look at me that way – you’ve all got them!) – should a white, Welsh, male sci-fi author be attempting to ventriloquise the voice of a black, female African, I wondered? But I decided to give Alastair Reynolds the benefit of the doubt – why the hell not? Anyway, I’m pleased to report that BRE’s treatment of race and nationality is sensitive and perceptive, with, most thankfully, no uneasy attempts to render vernacular accent and dialogue with phonetic spellings or trite colloquialisms; which more-often-than-not such attempts over-shoot the intended destination of “realism”, charge through port patronising and finally grind to an almightily hubristic stop at racist station (I’m looking at you, Kathryn Stockett, and you Chris Cleave, and you Martin Amis etc. etc.).
Having said that, Blue Remembered Earth doesn’t really engage with race as an “issue”, either; in line with Reynolds’ stated utopianist agenda for the novel (and let’s face it, his novels to date have predominantly favoured very bleak, dark projected futures), the society of BRE is essentially post-racist, post-sexist and post-homophobic. And while it’s incredibly uplifting that a 21st-Century sci-fi writer is willing to describe a future in which we finally get over ourselves in this regard, I would have liked a little more context and background given to explaining how the end of racism came about; as it stands, it’s all seems a bit sui generis. Either way though, it’s a joy to find a sci-fi writer with the balls to compose a novel dominated by strong female characters, black protagonists free from caricature, and the presentation of a genuinely tender and affecting homosexual relationship: all of which are character issues alarmingly rare and neglected in modern speculative fiction. [[As a note: Alastair Reynolds has (on his blog) also written about the shameful invisibility of women writers in the mainstream sci-fi market, and has drawn my attention to both Linda Nagata and Lauren Beukes – both of whom I highly recommend.]]
But if the end of racism is a narrative thread not given any explicit context in BRE, the same can’t be said for the end of violence. In another ballsy and somewhat genre-defying move, Reynolds has crafted a society in which violence is, literally, impossible: any violent thoughts/actions are immediately intercepted by ‘The Mechanism’, a kind of re-imagined literalisation of Orwell’s Thought Police. The Mechanism reads and manipulates the networked nano-machines implanted into every human being and temporarily paralyses an aggressor before he or she can complete any violent action anywhere on Earth. While this may seem like the sort of audacious plot device that, though interesting, would eventually stifle narrative momentum, actually quite the opposite is true: The Mechanism helps develop another of the book’s more focused binary sub-texts – the individual versus society. Geoffrey’s mid-novel decision to physically attack his cousin, for example, isn’t extraordinary in and of itself (believe me, the cousin has it coming), it’s extraordinary because Geoffrey knows that The Mechanism will intercept his swing before his fist makes contact, but he makes the swing anyway. What follows is a gloriously bathetic sequence in which Geoffrey is temporarily paralysed and collapses, sobbing. You could probably make some hackneyed comment that Alastair Reynolds is writing about the irrationality and empty-headedness of rage here but, for me, this whole scene carries the broader significance of emphasising Geoffrey’s frustration with the systems of control that make this Utopia possible; his unresolved societal loyalty on the one hand, and his desire for absolute freedom of agency on the other. Some of the novel’s more memorable passages describe the giddy abandon the siblings enjoy on the Moon and on Mars, where they’re free from the over-bearing restrains of The Mechanism.
Similarly, this narrative tension has resonances in Geoffrey’s relationship with his own family. There’s some nice cognitive dissonance at play in his all-consuming desire to dedicate this life to zoology and the study of elephants, and the pressure he endures from the family to take up an inherited position maintaining its lucrative business. Individuality vs. familial expectancy is an obvious and well-established trope of the Family Saga genre, and like many clichés, is most interesting when so skilfully played with.
Geoffrey’s sister, Sunday, by comparison, suffers from no such internal conflict, and has left Earth and all familial obligations to pursue a career as a sculptor. Like her brother, she’s far from the two-dimensional heroine I so heavy-heartedly expect from the majority of sci-fi I read. There are some deeply affecting passages in which Sunday contemplates some commissioned sculpture or other, despairing at the financial necessity at being a chisel for hire, while simultaneously hoping that this will be the piece that affords her enough money and time to work on her own art – all the while, deep down, fearing (and, perhaps, knowing) that her ideas and ability aren’t good enough, anyway. Sunday’s interest in art permeates the story-telling to the extent that the visual aesthetic of Blue Remembered Earth is constructed by constant references to real-life artists. Landscapes are often described via references to paintings by, say, van Gogh, or Dali. Reynolds’ description of a lunarscape and its attendant severe horizon as being a “late Rothko” is extraordinary in its simplicity of expression yet simultaneous exactness of image – it is, without exaggeration, the most spot-on visual analogy for the moon I’ve read in any sci-fi, like, ever.
So, how to finish this? My agenda in reviewing Blue Remembered Earth has largely been to disprove the few ambivalent reviews I’ve read that describe the book as nothing more than a round-the-solar-system treasure hunt at the behest of a dead grandmother (and Eunice is so much more than that – my copy of BRE is covered in notes where I saw her functioning as a metaphor for the God-like role of author:: Eunice may not feature in the novel physically, but her influence both diffuses through and smothers every single scene as she, post-mortem, pulls all the strings, exerting (in some places very literal) authorial control over not just her grandchildren’s lives, but the direction of every event, conflict and tension in the book. Eunice, then, is more than an absent character; she is a metaphor for the process of writing). As always with novels of this ilk, there’s so much I haven’t covered – weird body-altering cults, the odd business-tech language that makes up the dialogue of cousins Hector and Lucas, and the mesmerising sequence in which Sunday electronically transmits her consciousness into what she assumes is a robot proxy, only to discover that she’s inhabiting an electronic space-suit that houses a rotting corpse (Alastair Reynolds has always had a great eye for the horror implicit in advanced technologies); and not to mention the total mind-fuck ending (among Reynolds’ best – and that’s saying something) – so I apologise if I’ve neglected something of specific interest to someone.
What Blue Remembered Earth successfully offers is a striking marriage of hard science fiction genre proclivities (and all the expected scale and wonder) with a microcosmic focus on the loyalties that hold together and tear apart one family. It’s at once gigantic in scope and pint-point sharp in focus. Its head may be up there in the unimaginable massiveness of space, but its heart sits very much in the more fragile, brief moment of family. That and dwarf elephants. Amazingly cute, genetically-engineered dwarf elephants.