Apologies for this post, but I’ve lost it to wordpress’s whimsy twice now and I’m starting to get quite bummed.
The Book: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
The Plot Summary: Several hundred years hence, the African Union is one of the dominant powers of the world, having succeeded India and China as the superpower of the age. It balances itself with the Aquatic Nations, those people who have built themselves homes in and around the ocean. Meanwhile, under the auspices of the Akinya family, humanity is spreading into space and even beginning the arduous process of terraforming Mars. Geoffrey, one of the black sheep of the Akinya line, returns home after his grandmother dies, only to discover that her death has set in motion a series of events that might change the future of space flight for humans across the solar system.
So what did I think?
First off, here’s an amazon review of Blue Remembered Earth.
I really wanted to like this book, despite the extremely far-fetched assumption that Africa, even in the 22nd century was the Earth’s technology powerhouse. I mean the only reason they have indoor plumbing and cell phones is because their former colonial rulers gave them these gifts. It will be a depressing world indeed if Europe and the United States give up their technical leadership and cede it to the dark continent.
Despite my misgivings, I borrowed this book from my local library and gave it a shot. I just couldn’t make myself believe that Africans were going into space, so I had to stop reading it.
Well, I suppose that being a raging racist prick is one reason to dislike a book. I was mostly shocked and depressed as it’s rare for me to run into racism this obvious any more, except if it’s being deployed for shock value… and I’m not sure this review is intentionally being shocking. I know, I know, it’s the internet, and so on and so forth… but still.
Unfortunately, while this guy is a bigot, there is an issue with the African heroes of BRE … but it’s not the one posted above. The issue, rather, has to do with how Mr Reynolds, a white Welshman, writes his Kenyan main characters.
One thing you’ll find if you ever read any African literature translated into English is that African literature has a rich history of celebrating the traditions of its mother continent even as it decries some of the more problematic (to put it mildly) facets of their culture. For example, Ngugi wa Thiong’o draws deeply on African spiritualism and superstition when he wrote his book Wizard of the Crow , but it achieves a sort of authenticity – a sort of epistolary of the joys of having a history that is thousands of years old and yet still in living memory, even as it avoided or condemned things like the subjugation of women or the rampant homophobia infecting so many African nations these days.
I find it hard to believe that this tradition would have vanished in just a couple years, and yet if you take BRE ‘s world at face value that is exactly what seems to have happened. other than the names, there is little acknowledgment of the traditions and unique cultures of Africa in the world Reynolds had crafted. This is all the more problematic when you consider that in Reynold’s vision of the future, it is the AU which has become the leading world superpower.
So what are we supposed to believe? Perhaps that in the future of BRE , despite the political power of Africa (and the vanishing of the Americas from the world stage almost entirely), American culture succeeded in absorbing and sublimating all other cultures? Maybe, but if so that’s pretty weird.
Also problematical is Reynold’s Mechanism, though I think this was more intentional. The Mechanism of BRE is a pervasive Panopticon, a distributed machine intelligence so powerful it can stop a human from committing violence before he has the chance to, say, hit his opponent. Even more chillingly, it seems that the law – such as it is in this perfectly policed world – states that a person is guilty of a crime as long as he had intent to commit, even if it never actually happened. The astute reader will see shades of minority Report, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely unintentional.
Despite the creeping horror you or I may feel over the idea that our entire lives would be under surveillance in this way, the characters of BRE hardly even notice it. That, to me, is just as chilling as the Mechanism itself. They live in a world that has conditioned them to accept and even feel safe with perpetual surveillance. Reynolds posits that Utopias can only be built with dystopian powers; and somewhat surprisingly for SF, seems to hold to the idea that in order to secure happiness and safety for all, it is necessary for some to give up their freedoms.
I haven’t touched on the storyline for BRE, and that’s because the story and the characters, while more developed than some of Reynolds’ other works, are still workmanlike at best. the death of Geoffrey Akinya’s grandmother sets off a treasure hunt that takes he and his sister across the breadth of the solar system, culminating in a high speed flight to the Oort cloud and the discovery of a secret of both earth-shattering importance and banal disappointment. It is only in the last third of this book, when Reynolds introduces thing like the accidentally created evolutionary zone where robots fight endlessly in a simulacra of Darwinism, and begins to explore how strange the universe outside of earth can be, that we really get to see the sort of big-ideas Reynolds is famous for.
Compared to all of his other works, Blue Remembered Earth is a different sort: slow, character-driven, interested in the human impact of the events he explains. That he doesn’t always succeed is more than made up for by the fact that he is, at least, trying. At the end of the book I was not disappointed, or frustrated, or angry; rather, I was a little wistful that I would have to wait another few years to see what happens next in the saga of the Akinyas. It’s not so bad, I suppose; in the meantime I have other books, and I can always reread BRE, and see if I missed anything.
For a book, especially one in a trilogy, I’m pretty sure that all that matters.