Blue Remembered Earth

by Alastair Reynolds

Cover image

Series: Poseidon's Children #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: January 2012
Printing: June 2012
ISBN: 0-441-02071-2
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 505

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Geoffrey Akinya is one heir to the vast Akinya business empire, which straddles the solar system and has created vast riches from exploration and mining. He wants nothing to do with it. His passion is elephants: long and methodical study of wild herds in Africa, including a slow and careful investigation into their thought processes. His obnoxious and superior cousins have a passion for business and finance and can have the running of the company for all he cares.

But Geoffrey's grandmother Eunice, the family matriarch and driving force behind much of their business expansion, has died. Her ashes are brought back to Africa from the Winter Palace in orbit around the Moon where she lived out her final days and scattered in a family ceremony. And, shortly thereafter, Geoffrey's cousins convince him to investigate a safe-deposit box left on the Moon by Eunice to ensure that it doesn't contain anything damaging to the family. What it contains is the first step in a puzzle. Despite himself, Geoffrey and his sister Sunday — an artist and family black sheep who lives in a region of the Moon that is one of the sole holdouts against the ubiquitous monitoring common in the rest of the inhabited solar system — are slowly pulled into unraveling that puzzle. This leads them into an uneasy alliance with one of the major political forces in the solar system and some startling revelations about their grandmother's actual plans.

Blue Remembered Earth is another entry in the currently-popular sub-genre of solar system SF. Interstellar travel is still a dream, but a combination of improved technology, suspended animation, and heavy use of robots and robotic factories has let humans slowly expand into more of the solar system. On Earth, powers have risen and fallen, and the leap into the solar system coincided with a surging and powerful Africa. Extensive undersea colonization has established a new international consortium of sea-floor countries, and Earth politics have realigned into a diplomatic and business struggle between surface and oceanic nations.

Unusually for this sort of fiction, most characters of significance in this story are African. The United States and Europe have quietly disappeared in the way that all non-US countries tend to in most other SF. Reynolds doesn't do very much with this setup (and the characters don't seem distinctly African to me). It's just there as the unremarked normal. I liked that. I kind of wish more of African culture had come through in the story, but there are enough SF novels with an assumed and unremarked white (and usually US) future that an assumed and unremarked black African culture is a nice change of pace.

I picked up this book in part because it was described as a better 2312. That's a fairly accurate summary (although only helpful to those who have read Kim Stanley Robinson's novel). The scope and setting are similar, although Reynolds's future cuts back on the scope of off-world human colonization, relies more heavily on robotics, and keeps the power base on Earth. Both books are structured as a mystery, although in Blue Remembered Earth that mystery is deliberately planted for the characters. Reynolds is nowhere near as good at set pieces as Robinson, sadly. There's nothing here at the level of some of the scenes on Mercury in 2312. But he is much better at plotting and characterization, and Blue Remembered Earth tells a coherent story with increasing tension and a satisfying ending.

Reynolds here uses an interesting strategy for spinning a mystery out of pieces of knowledge and discovery: set the discovery process prior to the novel, use protagonists who were unaware of it, and turn the details into a mystery that they have to investigate. This is an interesting way to address the problem that most discovery processes are slow and not particularly dramatic. It is artificial — Eunice creates the plot for the novel — but that worked for me. By the end of the book, I think I understand her reasons for doing so, and both Geoffrey and Sunday have good reasons to not be aware of any of the details before they start following the clues that Eunice leaves behind.

The mystery of course sends Geoffrey and Sunday on a bit of a tour of the solar system as well as a tour of the past of their family business and the politics of the present. Here, Reynolds draws on an old SF idea: a conflict between groups that want to mechanize space exploration and groups that want to adapt humans for space. Long-time SF readers will be familiar with this approach, and I don't think Reynolds does anything startlingly new with it, but I thought it was a well-executed side plot. And, for once, an SF author realizes that Earth's oceans are as compelling of a place for that conflict to play out as outer space.

There are, of course, significant mysteries to be uncovered, but it takes much of the book before those revelations start (even if one of them is almost spoiled in the dust jacket summary). The story up until that point is driven by character, particularly Geoffrey's stubborn annoyance at the rest of his family and his complete lack of interest in being the protagonist of a novel.

I should probably warn here that many of the Amazon reviews disliked this book because of the characters, particularly Geoffrey. Apparently he comes across to some as whiny, resentful, and annoying. I, however, didn't have this reaction at all, possibly in part because I wholeheartedly share his opinion of both big business and his cousins. I thoroughly enjoyed reading an SF novel whose main characters are not driven either typical capitalist motives or a desire for personal exploration, but instead are pulled into the plot through a sense of loyalty and an inability to get out of the way of the problem. I also liked the way Reynolds manages to broaden and deepen the reader's appreciation for the characters as the story unfolds, and even salvages some characters I thought were unsalvageable. The last third of the book features some excellent plot twists and some very nicely-handled revelations.

This is apparently the first book of a trilogy, and I had a suspicion at the end of the book that sequels were coming, but I think it stands on its own quite well. Most of the questions raised by the plot are resolved by the end of the book, and those that remain are of a size that other books have left unanswered intentionally.

Despite not reaching the same moments of awe-inspiring beauty, and despite more workman-like descriptions, the stronger plot and more interesting characters do make Blue Remembered Earth a better 2312 for me. Given that 2312 won a Nebula, that's saying something (although I don't agree with that award). It's a bit deliberate in its pacing, and the plot built around a constructed puzzle can feel a bit artificial, but I think it's a solid and satisfying near-space SF novel.

Followed by On the Steel Breeze.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21