Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A satisfying, imaginative piece of futurism in the engrossing Blue Remembered Earth

From the Week of June 24th, 2013

What are the costs of success? Our world, as of this writing, is awash in political strife, sectarian violence and organized criminality, all of which stain our civilization. But for all the damage these chaotic elements cause, they are at least reminders that we are, in a key sense, free to act as we choose. What if, in the near future, as seems possible, technology advances to the point where we could prevent crime, re-enforce the democratic process, and allow us to heal our world of the pollution and the corruption we've imposed upon it? Our civilization would be, by every measure, better off, but at what cost? These values would have to be imposed upon everyone. And though most would agree to them, would that uniformity not rob us of a fundamental ability to choose to be foolish? These sticky questions are brilliantly tackled by Alastair Reynolds' mesmerizing first volume of a promising trilogy.

The year is 2162 and Earth is at peace. Humanity has weathered the anthropogenic storms and endured the nihilism of sectarian and resource conflicts to create a newer, better world, one shaped by an admirable dedication to non-violent progress. Genetic engineering, nanotechnology and virtual reality are commonplace, deployed as mechanisms for aiding in both the enjoyment and the interconnectivity of humanity. This utopian society, which is lead by Africa, with India and China as somewhat secondary powers, is managed by the Mechanism, an omnipresent surveillance system that prevents violent actions through painful and debilitating stimulus applied to the human brain via their nanotechnological augmentations.

Having spread to both colonies in the solar system and to cities under Earth's seas, humanity appears to have reached the zenith of its progress. Technological advancement has slowed from the frenetic pace of the previous century, leading some to wonder if the Mechanism-imposed peace has retarded the chaotic creativity of earlier decades. However, this view is undermined when two members of the Akinya family, a powerful African outfit that have earned incalculable riches by creating some of the key technologies that have enabled the cultivation of the solar system's many resources, stumble upon secrets left behind by their clan's recently deceased matriarch. Geoffrey, a biologist, and Sunday, an techno-artist, together and individually, begin to investigate their grandmother's past in hopes of unearthing the mysteries that characterized her long, legendary existence. In doing so, they initiate a series of events that might well irrevocably change human civilization.

The rich product of one of science fiction's brightest minds, Blue Remembered Earth is a tour de force. Mr. Reynolds, an astronomer turned author, has not only spun out a well-paced, dramatic tale, he has deviated from 50 years of western tropes and divined, in their stead, a complex future world that oozes authenticity. No one writing from the early years of the 21st century can do more than guess at what life will be like in the 22nd, but Mr. Reynolds' refreshing brand of futurism immerses the reader in such inviting, mesmerizing layers of verisimilitude that this hard truth is happily discarded for an world that won't soon be forgotten.

Mr. Reynolds is by no means the first to conceive of a future world that takes for granted technologies that are currently only in the embryonic stage of development. No, the genius here lies in the manner in which he imagines their unspooling over the next 150 years, leading eventually to a probable future that has advanced well beyond the crude interfaces of screen and keyboard so ubiquitous today, embracing, in their stead, biotechnologies that interact directly with our minds. These electrifying technologies not only play a substantial role in the unfolding of the narrative; they are explored by an author interested as much in their philosophical outcomes as their tangible ones.

For all its brilliant futurism, however, this first entry in the Poseidon's Children trilogy suffers from one significant systemic flaw. One of Mr. Reynolds' imagined technologies allows individuals to project their consciousnesses into automatons, ranging from robots to lifelike androids, designed to allow humans to interact over long distances. But though this technology is deployed to great effect by the plot, the author fails to explain why, when these disposable bodies are readily available, and fully capable of extending a human's reach well out into space without having to leave the safety of Earth, humans do not simply stay on Terra Firma and allow their mechanical proxies to endure the dangers of both space travel and Blue Remember Earth's plot. Perhaps the humans of Mr. Reynolds' future simply have too strong a desire to explore for themselves, to feel the ground of other worlds crunching beneath their booted feet, but when set against the overwhelming advantages of avoiding the deterioration of the human body in reduced gravity, and given that proxies could obviously possess attributes humans cannot, this seems like a flimsy excuse. Should we develop this proxy technology, I imagine most humans will explore the solar system with their minds, not their bodies.

Beyond the science here, Blue Remembered Earth's plot holds up well. From the rapidly evolving landscapes of Mars to the bohemian refuges of the dark side of Earth's moon, we're introduced to vistas and characters into whom Mr. Reynolds has breathed life. There are missteps, certainly. The author's puppetmaster's strings are allowed to show far too often, with actors just happening to arrive at precisely the right moment to receive clues to a mystery only they are destined to solve, but these are forgivable sins when the goal is so rewarding.

A wonderful, captivating beginning to a trilogy of immense promise... (4/5 Stars)

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