Alastair Reynolds writes hard-SF space opera constrained by current understandings of physics. That means than in his worlds, there is no magical faster-then-light travel, so spacecraft must take many years to cross the gap between stars. This in turn makes interstellar travel a one-way trip, which has a big impact on the sorts of stories you can tell. I haven’t get read his most recent “Revenger”, but here are some thoughts on his recent Poseidon’s Children trilogy, comprising “Blue Remembered Earth”, “On The Steel Breeze” and “Poseidon’s Wake”.
The three novels cover a time span of hundreds of years, with the point-of-view characters from different generations of an extended wealthy Kenyan family, the matriarch Eunice Akinya playing a central role across the whole saga despite being dead at the beginning of the first book.
With each volume, Reynolds turns up the scale. The first book, “Blue Remembered Earth” is part mystery, part family drama, taking place on Earth and all over the solar system. It’s the 2160s, Earth has been through some turbulent times and come out of the other side with nations like Kenya and India as major powers, and the Kenyan Akinya family has grown rich out of space exploration.
By the time of “On The Steel Breeze”, a fleet of generation ships made from hollowed-out asteroids is en-route to a planet orbiting a nearby star, where telescopes in the solar system have detected the presence of enigmatic alien structures. The action shifts between the generation ships and the solar system, as it slowly becomes apparent that things are not what they seem, and somebody or something wants the mission to fail.
In the final volume, “Poseidon’s Wake” a successful colony has been established on that distant planet, and an inscrutable alien machine intelligence has entered the picture. After early events on the colony world, on Mars and on Earth, the focus shifts to a third star system which might provide the key to the mysteries of those enigmatic ancient structures. Multiple factions, not all of them human, struggle over how or whether to interact with them.
Some themes recur from his earlier “Revelation Space” saga; in particular the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, machine intelligences, generic engineering, and uplifted sentient animals. But where that earlier series was dark and gothic, the mood here is far brighter and more optimistic. Dealing with ancient and very alien machine intelligences is still highly dangerous, but the backdrop of Lovecraftian doom of that earlier saga is absent.
The believable future politics is another strong point. The politically-motivated minor villains aren’t the thinly-disguised caricatures of Tories, Communists, Republicans or Democrats typical of lesser authors. Instead they’re the result of far-future political faultlines in a world as far away from ours as we are from the high middle ages.
With this trilogy in particular, Reynolds is successful in combining an old-school Campbellian sense of wonder with well-realised three-dimensional characters. While it’s a long way from swashbuckling pulp there are some gripping action sequences and more than one supporting character dies in a seemingly futile and avoidable way. The result is something that’s old-fashioned in one respect and modern in another.
At a time when the world of SF seems divided into two warring camps, one championing socially aware work with ambitions towards literature, the other rooting for entertaining action adventure, Reynolds stands with a foot in both camps. It’s precisely the sort of thing that ought to be nominated more often for major SF awards.