I’ve recently read the first two books in Alastair Reynolds’s new series, ‘Poseidon’s Children’: ‘Blue Remembered Earth‘ and ‘On the Steel Breeze‘. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Reynolds’s work, and these books fit his usual style: hard(ish) science fiction, a rich and interesting universe, and characters in interesting situations and dilemmas.
The first book takes place in the 22nd century, after civilization has been through some trying times, recovering from the effects of climate change.
One of the themes that surface repeatedly in Reynolds’s work is the constancy of change, and that nothing lasts forever. He makes this clear in the Revelation Space series by charting the rise and fall of the various societies in that series, in the evolution of the characters from one book to another (not always for the better) , and in this new series by calling attention to the changes in dominant cultures in the future that he lays out.
By the beginning of the story, American and European dominance is a long distant memory, China has become the dominant power, but appears to be in decline, with Africa ascendent, and mankind has spread throughout the solar system. In this future world, Chinese and Swahili are the dominant languages, the new lingua francas of communication, commerce, and technology.
However, this isn’t a major concern, since just about everyone has “aug”, that is technological augmentation embedded in their head, and can access information, including language translation, effortlessly. They can also “ching” to various locations, virtually visit people in remote locations, including the ability to send autonomous simulations of themselves to locations in the solar system too distant for immediate interaction.
The action centers on the Akinya family, a rich and powerful dynasty with a business empire that spans the solar system. Eunice Akinya, the grand matriarch of the family, has just died. She apparently has left a series of clues that lead the two main characters, Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, her grandchildren, on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system for an unknown payoff.
The first book was pretty good, but it contained a lot of world-building material, and spent a lot of time developing concepts that only start to come to fruition in the second book. It’s in the second book, which takes place a generation after the first book, that the story moves (partially) to an interstellar setting.
As I mentioned above, Reynolds tends toward hard science fiction, so don’t expect anything like hyperspace or warp drive in these books. Interstellar travel, at least in these first two books, takes place at slower than light speeds, requiring centuries to reach distant star systems. As a physicist and astronomer, Reynolds is very much aware of the stark energy requirements for interstellar travel, that fast large starships are pretty unlikely with our current understanding of physics, so the story requires discoveries and breakthroughs in physics to have ships achieve a notable percentage of the speed of light.
Reynolds describes an interstellar caravan of “holoships”, hollowed out asteroids, mini worlds traveling between the stars at around 13% of the speed of light. Although all of the characters are long lived enough so that the ships are not really generation ships, they effectively contain a mini civilization, with its own political factions, which becomes an important aspect of the story.
An important theme in this series, another one which Reynolds has explored before, is the nature of sentience, consciousness, self awareness, including whether or not machines have it. One of the main characters in the books is a simulation of Eunice Akinya, the dead matriarch. The other characters remind themselves repeatedly that this version of Eunice is a simulation, algorithms in motion, and not their actual grandmother (or great-grandmother in the second book). But they are constantly catching themselves regarding her as an actual person, and the reader is invited to wonder how much of a difference really exists.
This theme is expanded with another character, an artificial intelligence which has infiltrated itself into the global networks in the solar system, and fights to protect itself from threats to its survival. These threats are real since artificial general intelligences are illegal and subject to destruction if found by the “Cognition Police”. Most of the second book is concerned with the struggle between this AI and the other characters. I’ve written before on why I think this kind of AI conflict is unlikely, and so from a strictly scientific perspective I think Reynolds is at his weakest here, but I have to admit that this standard sci-fi trope does makes for an exciting story.
Along these same lines are a population of elephants that are introduced in the first book, but become much more important in the second. “Tantors” are elephants that have been uplifted, that is had their cognition enhanced far beyond that of baseline elephants, to the point that they are nearly as intelligent as humans. These Tantors give Reynolds the ability to explore the themes of sentience from another direction. I have a feeling that they will become very important before the series is over.
Lastly on this theme, the main character in the second book, Chiku Akinya, is a collection of three clones which can share memories with each other. At the beginning of the book, one of the clones is on Earth and the other two are in interstellar space. The transmission of memories becomes an important plot point, and leads to some interesting confusion on Chiku’s part about exactly what her definition of self actually is. For example, in one scene, the clone on Earth confuses her husband with the husband of the clone in interstellar space, much to the chagrin of the local husband.
Finally, like most good space operas, there are aliens. I’m not going to say anything about them here, because just about anything I could say would be a spoiler. I’ll just note that Reynolds has a good history of doing interesting things with aliens and leave it at that.
The story in the first book takes place over a period of months, while the story in the second takes place over several decades. There’s at least one more book coming, which I’ve heard will likely take place over centuries or maybe even millennia. This fits, since when Reynolds first announced the trilogy he mentioned it would chart a 10,000 year future history.
I’m looking forward to that third book. If your tastes run toward space opera and hard science fiction, with detailed descriptions of technologies, spaceships, and exotic environments (most of which I didn’t get around to mentioning here), then I highly recommend this series.