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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Guest Post)

This review will be posted in two sections, the top section here will consist of a general review of the book with no spoilers. The second section, under the line (or if you’re viewing just the limited post behind the “read more” link) will be a more in-depth look, but will definitely have spoilers!

Blue Remembered Earth (which, for brevity, I will just call BRE) was gifted to me as part of Gollancz “get a free book and write a review” scheme, and to be honest I hadn't really heard of it before. Whilst I'm a very big fan of Sci-Fi, Alastair Reynolds has been one of those authors on my periphery for long enough that I figured this was a good place to start.

BRE is certainly an interesting book to read. It’s laid out in three sections, with section 1 being about the first half, section two being about the second half, and section three being a small chapter or two at the end. This layout also fits the pacing of the book, with the first section being a slow build-up, the second maintaining this level of pace with minor fluctuations, and the third being an all out brain-smashing of concepts.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the particular way Reynolds seems to write his technology. Whereas many sci-fi authors write technology that hasn't even been conceptualised yet (see much of the Original Series of Star Trek), Reynolds writes technology that we are just beginning to look at that has been perfected. One of the prime examples is the Space Catapult used to fire goods (and sometimes people) into orbit. Much of his technology isn’t that hard to imagine, it’s the interesting tilts he puts on it that make it fun.
The writing of his book is very fluid, and I didn’t find myself getting lost or confused at any point. Whilst few books have ever gripped me, this one very much did. Upon starting it was quite hard to put down! But what about the story? Well for the concise section the story follows the journey of Geoffrey Akinya and his sister, Sunday. The book opens with the funeral of their grandmother, a pioneer of space who guided their family to becoming one of, if not the, most influential and wealthy families in the solar system. With her funeral Geoffrey is called to investigate a vault on the moon that she owned, that members of his family are worried might contain something damaging to their reputation, and what follows is an intricate path laid out by his grandmother to discover one of the last secrets left to humanity. One of the largest, and perhaps strangest, focusses in the book is the relationship between Geoffrey and a herd of elephants. Called the “M-group”, Geoffrey has studied them for the majority of his life, working towards eventually merging their brain activity with his own to fully perceive the world as they do. Considered an expert in the field of elephant neurology, it is clear that Reynolds did his research with herd dynamics, and the information is genuinely interesting outside the bounds of the book (what isn’t fictional, at least!). The characters themselves were very interesting. There is Geoffrey, whom you follow for most of the story, who feels like a believable human. His main goal in his life is to work with the elephants, and even leaving for a week to visit the moon for the investigative journey he is loathed to part with them. Later parts of the book show his defence of “his” herd to be quite powerful. His sister Sunday is somewhat more whimsical than his down-to-earth views, but plays the part of the young artist sick of a restricted life perfectly. There are other peripheral characters, most notable their twin cousins, Hector and Lucas. As the Akinya family is a business family, Hector and Lucas appear to run the majority of it, and take a very businesslike approach to all decisions, only caring about the moon vault because they worry it might contain a scandal that would lower their stocks. There are some very interesting dynamics between these four, with Sunday being the rouge child that they tend to ignore, and Geoffrey being seen as a potential aid who is wasting his time with a “pet project”, whilst Hector and Lucas sum up everything that Sunday and Geoffrey dislike about the Akinya house. There are a few areas the book does fall a little short. Some of the terminology isn’t explained in the book, and it takes a little while for the reader to understand what it’s talking about. This is a problem for all sci-fi; how to explain futuristic terms. On the one hand a “dunce” character can be written in to be explained at for the readers’ sake, and on the other the reader can be left to figure it out on their own. Reynolds chooses the latter, but he does pull it off far more skilfully than many other authors I've read. There is a slight pacing issue with the main story, and a slight scale issue. Without giving too much away, the latter parts of the story involve some quite substantial time jumps, and with vast amounts of new information being provided at the same time it feels like the ending is trying to cram more book into the third part than there was in the second. I would have, personally, preferred the book to have a longer third part that stretched some of the last chapters out a little. Overall my impressions of the book were very positive. I read the whole thing very quickly, enjoyed it greatly, and actively looked for information of a sequel. When I found that it looks like Reynolds is considering further Akinya books I was quite happy, so that should give you an idea of my impressions! As a final score? If I had to I’d give it a 5. The story was detailed where it mattered, flowed perfectly, and the characters were perfectly fleshed out!

Rather than go over what I've already said, there are a few points I'd like to expand on that are most certainly spoilers. Seriously, if you have any desire to read the book stop here, the remainder of the review spoils literally every point.
Whilst the first two sections involve Geoffrey and Sunday investigating the legacy Eunice left behind in various capacities, around the third section mark the reader is suddenly told that one of the deep space telescopes has found signs of intelligent life. Shortly after that, Geoffrey finds out that Eunice discovered alien chemical equations and figured out how to translate them, and for the past 60 or so years has been hiding this information from humanity. She gives him the decision of what to do with them next. These two points come so out of the blue that they are very striking, and whilst I loved them both there was very little time to really look at them. The fact that there is also a 5 week gap going to the secret, and then back to earth, lends it a slightly odd out of sync feel. The other point is Eunice. Although deed, she's not as quiet as one would think. Sunday spends a great portion of the book perfecting an AI construct of Eunice that has all of the memories and news about her that she can get hold of. The result is an AI that can react and act as Eunice would, but doesn't know anything Eunice kept secret. She can make valid deductions about what Eunice would have been thinking, and proves very useful, and the relationship between her and Geoffrey (who isn't sure this whole venture is a good idea) is interesting. These points don't change my opinion of the book, but it's certainly interesting that Reynolds chose to include constructs of Eunice that show regret at having to be deleted, and wish for human contact in a moment that is quite thought provoking. Whilst I wasn't a fan of the very quick ending section, I am hoping future books will build on this a bit more and that it's a way of wrapping up this particular saga in favour of continuations.

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