This book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost.
So. This book. When I heard that Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter were collaborating, I was beside myself. This is two of my great SF loves coming together. It’s Robert Plant and Jim Morrison jamming.
At the back of my mind was the reminder that I haven’t quite adored Baxter’s latest novels, and that Reynolds’ latest novels have been quite different from his early ones too. NONETHELESS. Plant and Morrison, folks.
I really liked it… but I didn’t love it. It feels… old fashioned.
The premise: building on Arthur C Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa,” Baxter and Reynolds take the main character, Howard Falcon, who is a cyborg due to a serious crash years before, and extend him way into the future. This is a future where humanity is incredibly suspicious of machines and artificial intelligence, and Falcon – being the incredibly weird hybrid that he is – is often at the receiving end of that suspicion. But it also means that he’s useful as a mediator when humanity’s machines start developing consciousness, which means he’s there at the birth of that intelligence, which means he continues to be useful as an intermediary. This becomes the story of Falcon’s life, and thus the story of The Medusa Chronicles.
I did like it because I like thinking about humanity in the solar system and how that might work (this is another one where there’s looming interplanetary conflict, so apparently that’s unavoidable). I liked the whimsical attachment to the notion of ballooning as inspiration for astronauts and Jovian exploration. And I also like stories of the development of artificial intelligence and the consequences of that for humanity, although I did feel like that wasn’t explored enough here.
The novel feels a bit old-fashioned because I can’t quite fathom humanity being suspicious of machines. I assume this reflects the novels and other media I’ve been consuming – I mean yes, be suspicious, but surely only after they’ve shown that they want to kill us and use our bodies as compost? There’s also a significant level of info-dumping, which isn’t always a problem for me but can be a barrier, I know, for others. And, too, there’s a lack of significant character development. The reader gets to know Falcon almost by default, as our point of view, but most of the others – like Hope Dhoni, Falcon’s medical expert for much of his incredibly prolonged life – are almost faceless, ciphers.
There are some lovely moments and a few odd moments in the novel. The odd moments are especially where Falcon makes reference to old literature or films and wonders if anyone will get the reference – for example, to Tolkien – and yet Project Silenus is thus named because of Euripides, and in explaining the naming he doesn’t have to explain who Euripides is. I’m unconvinced about the longevity of Euripides over Tolkien (we’re talking centuries here), although I guess Euripides does have form. Some of the lovely moments are in the alternate history of NASA and thus humanity in space that Baxter and Reynolds present. Here, the threat of an asteroid completely changes the direction of the Apollo programme and has consequences for humanity going to Mars and beyond; the authors reference real astronauts, like Frank Borman and Charlie Duke, but give them a slightly different career path (and there’s no reference to ‘any similarity to real people is purely coincidental’ or however the line runs, in the fine print).
Overall this is a pretty good science fiction novel, but it’s not one of my favourites for the year.