Tag Archives: Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children

poseidons-children

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.

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Booky McBookface, by Noah Ward

So Vox Day has managed to crap all over the Hugo Awards for the second year running, flooding some categories completely and getting stories with titles “If You Were An Award, My Love” and “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” on the ballot.

What muddies the waters is that Day has also taken some reputable authors who deserved to get nominated anyway and covered them with his stink, I feel for Alastair Reynolds, who’s novella “Slow Bullets” has made the nominations and now risks becoming a political football.

This year it’s important to note that The Sad Puppies, run this year by Kate Paulk and Amanda Green, did not run slates as such, with recommendation lists that ranged from two or three entries in some categories to as many as ten in each of the fiction categories. At no point did they recommend five and only five nominations for any category.

The heavy overlap between Vox Day’s and Brad Torgersen’s Rabid and Sad Puppies slates last year obscured the fact that it was Vox Day who really did the damage. Wherever the two slates differed, it was Vox Day’s choices that made the ballot. This year there is no room for any doubt who the villain is, and I’m going to assume anyone who continues to blur the difference between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones is either ignorant or has an agenda.

I’m not a Worldcon member, but that’s not going to stop me giving unsolicited advice. So here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations.

First, ratify E Pluribus Hugo. This is ought to be such a no-brainer than anyone that attempts to argue otherwise is not to be trusted. It won’t fix everything, but it will make it harder for any well-organised minority to swamp the ballot.

Second, think very hard about the wisdom of repeating last year’s block no-awarding everything tainted, throwing good people under the bus in an attempt to preserve the purity of the awards. That stank when they did it to people like Toni Weisskopf last year. The garbage from VD’s cronies you can no award to oblivion if it’s as awful as it sounds from the titles. But remember that burning down The Hugos is VD’s goal, and no-awarding deserving nominees like Toni Weisskopf or Alastair Reynolds gives him what he wants.

Third, recognise that the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones are very different things, and try to build bridges with the some of the first of those groups, or at least avoid rhetoric or behaviour that further deepens the divide with anyone who’s not an actual acolyte of Vox Day. The mass no-awarding of last year did not help in that regard.

One problem with the Hugo Awards in recent years seems to be the lack of any consensus about what they’re supposed to represent. Do they represent the very best of science fiction and fantasy as a whole, or do they represent the favourites of a far narrower subset of fandom? Are they really publicly-voted awards, or closer to juried awards with an unusually large jury? And above all how much are they American rather than international?

At the moment they’ve neither quite one thing or the other, and that’s one root of the problem.

You could argue that the world of SF/F is now too broad and too diverse for a single set of awards to serve as a Gold Standard, there need to be alternative awards created for different crowds, and new awards like The Dragons are a step in that direction. So complaining that “Heroic Engineer” stories never get Hugo nominations is like complaining about the lack of rock and metal in the Mercury Music Prize when the Kerrang awards exist.

Only once Worldcon decide exactly what the Hugos are and who they are supposed to be for can they treat Vox Day as damage and route around him. At the moment he is still outmanoeuvring them, rendering last years Hugo Ceremony a pyrrhic victory.

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Amusica

An interesting study suggests that some people are physically incapable of enjoying music.

For most people, the mere suggestion that a favorite song fails to evoke an emotional response in another human being sounds preposterous. Sure, that person might not like that song as much as you do, but they’ll definitely feel something — right?

Not necessarily, says Josep Marco-Pallerés, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Barcelona and lead author of a new study that explores why some people feel indifferent to music. “Music isn’t rewarding for them, even though other kinds of rewards, like money, are,” he says. “It just doesn’t affect them.”

This makes me think of the Amusica virus from Alastair Reynolds’ Century Rain, in which an entire civilisation lost its ability to appreciate music through a genetically-engineered virus, so that the cultural heritage from Beethoven to The Beatles was reduced to tuneless scratching noises.

Amusia (Not “Amusica”) might well explain to those of us who are so passionate about music that it becomes a major part of our lives why others don’t share our interests. But sometimes I wonder if there are people within music fandom who don’t actually like music as defined by that research.

This is not actually not as strange as it sounds. I’ve met people who are totally unmoved by melody, but love the stories in the lyrics, which might explain the continued popularity of some tuneless singer-songwriters.  And then there are the people who insist that it you claim to like both punk and progressive rock you “just don’t get it”; I get the impression that for them it was all about the excitement of the rock’n'roll lifestyle than any love of the actual music.

Does the same neuroscience can explain why so many of us who do share a passion for music have such widely divergent tastes?

For example, I find much fashionable indie-rock tuneless and unlistenable, yet their fans as just as passionate about it as I am for progressive rock, so they must be hearing something I’m not, and vice versa. I’ve heard it said that the variety of music you’re exposed to at an early age affects your musical appreciation later in life.

So, those of you who are (or aren’t) music fans. Why do you like the music you like? What is it you like about it? And what about the music you don’t like?

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Science fiction for people who don’t read SF

Gareth L Powell and Damien G. Walter have been compling lists of science fiction novels to recomment to friends who don’t read SF.

This is my list. Like Gareth Powell I’m avoiding the “classics” of the genre by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven or Robert Heinlein in favour of more modern works, on the grounds that they’ve dated quite badly, coming from a time when it was still acceptable for SF novels to contain cardboard cutout characters. And don’t even get me started on Heinlein’s and Niven’s view on sexual politics…

Some of these take place in the ill-defined borderland between science-fiction and fantasy. I find hair-splitting arguments over genre boundaries are never productive, all I’ll say is that this is my list, and they fall under my personal broad definition of SF.

Yes I am aware that I’ve only got one book on the list by a woman; my bookshelf is filled overwhelmingly with the work of men in the way my record collection isn’t. I do need to do something about that, but that’s really a topic for another blog.

Century Rain” by Alastair Reynolds.
Part noir detective story, part alternate history, and part space-opera, most of the action taking place in a version of Paris that isn’t quite our own rather than in outer space. A couple of the central characters reminded me of some musicians I know.

 

Ash: A Secret History” by Mary Gentle.
This starts out as if it’s a straight historical story about a medieval mercenary company, with a framing story formed from the correspondence between a present-day translator and her editor. Then things start to get strange, as it’s slowly revealed that things are not what they seem.

 

The City and The City” by China Mieville.
No aliens, spaceships or vampires, and set in something resembling the present-day, but with a central concept that does require an SFF-style suspension of disbelief. May not work for everyone, since I do know both SF and non-SF fans who have failed to get their head round this one.

 

The Bloodline Feud” by Charles Stross.
Marketed as fantasy but actually science-fiction, with the science in question being economics with a side order of dynastic politics, and very cleverly inverts a lot of fantasy tropes. Biggest downside is it’s the first volume of a trilogy.

 

Anathem” by Neal Stephenson. An ambitious work that’s partly about philosophy, part social satire (I do love the concept of the word “bullshytte” as an academic term), and part rattling adventure yarn. Not really a lightweight popcorn novel, though; one of those works that’s hard work but ultimately rewarding, so it’s one for your friends who are into heavyweight literary stuff rather that mass-market bestsellers.

What would your recommendations be?

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