Stephen Bax­ter and Alas­tair Reynolds homage Arthur C Clarke.

SFX - - Reviews - Jonathan Wright

re­leased 19 May 336 pages | Hard­back/ ebook Au­thors Stephen Bax­ter, Alas­tair Reynolds Pub­lisher Gol­lancz

As a boy, the young Alas­tair Reynolds was fas­ci­nated by a se­ries of cards given away with Brooke Bond tea, The Race Into Space, which cul­mi­nated with a card show­ing a mis­sion to Mars.

The fu­ture th­ese cards sym­bol­ised never came about, yet it’s a fu­ture that con­tin­ues to ex­ert a huge in­flu­ence on many who grew up in the Apollo and Sky­lab years. Born in 1966, Reynolds later be­came an as­tro­physi­cist with the Euro­pean Space Agency. His co- writer on The Me­dusa Chron­i­cles, Stephen Bax­ter ( born 1957), ap­plied to be­come an as­tro­naut in 1991.

So it’s hardly sur­pris­ing both have gone on to be SF writ­ers, lead­ers in a field that by its na­ture is sup­posed to be about look­ing for­ward. Ex­cept this idea of SF as about try­ing to see what lies ahead is too of­ten over­stated. Leav­ing aside the tru­ism that SF nov­els are re­ally about the present, they’re also of­ten about the past. No, we’re not talk­ing about time travel, but the no­tion that we grow up with ideas about what lies ahead that are su­per­seded by sub­se­quent events, yet which con­tinue to ex­ert an in­flu­ence on our imag­i­na­tions.

Both Bax­ter and Reynolds grew up steeped in the space race, in an era when many Golden Age au­thors were still work­ing. For their first col­lab­o­ra­tion, they en­gage with this cul­tural his­tory in a novel that con­tin­ues the story of Arthur C Clarke’s Howard Fal­con. An “im­mor­tal” cy­borg ex­plorer, Fal­con made his bow in 1971 novella A Meet­ing With Me­dusa, in which he en­coun­ters vast floaty life­forms in the clouds of Jupiter. Fal­con’s fate, says Clarke, will be to be­come “an am­bas­sador” me­di­at­ing be­tween “crea­tures of car­bon” and “crea­tures of metal”.

What might Clarke have meant by this? It’s a ques­tion Bax­ter and Reynolds an­swer by root­ing their story in an al­ter­nate timeline, in which rock­etry and space ex­plo­ration have forged ahead but the de­vel­op­ment of AI has lagged be­hind. Un­til, that is, a ma­chine achieves con­scious­ness, set­ting the scene for a so­lar sys­temspan­ning con­flict be­tween hu­mankind and an emer­gent ma­chine civil­i­sa­tion – a con­flict seen through the eyes of Fal­con.

It’s here that one key ad­van­tage of set­ting a novel in the SF of the past be­comes clear: if post- Ver­nor Vinge SF seems un­able to es­cape the idea of a tech­no­log­i­cal sin­gu­lar­ity as an in­evitable pre­lude to hu­mankind be­ing usurped, Bax­ter and Reynolds go one step back in or­der to then go for­wards and chal­lenge this no­tion. We’re of­fered good rea­sons to sug­gest hu­man­ity might sur­vive such a con­flict, not least in the very Clarke- ian idea that sen­si­ble naysay­ers on both sides would work for peace.

This riff­ing off the source ma­te­rial works beau­ti­fully well but, at other times, strange as it may seem, Clarke’s in­flu­ence in­trudes. In par­tic­u­lar, in a novel where nos­tal­gia- tinged pas­tiche is an in­evitable risk, there’s some­times a Clarke- ish dry­ness. Some of the char­ac­ters seem un­der­de­vel­oped too, a pre­sum­ably un­wit­ting re­minder that Golden Age nov­el­ists were bet­ter at writ­ing about ideas than ac­tual peo­ple.

Hap­pily, such faults fall away when the duo’s own sto­ry­telling takes flight and, served up with space bat­tles, the de­struc­tion of plan­ets, ex­otic aliens, ar­ro­gant bad­dies and sly jokes, we’re of­fered a vivid and vi­tal take on a space age fu­ture that never ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Clarke, you may find your­self think­ing, would surely ap­prove.

Reynolds first read A Meet­ing With Me­dusa aged eight, in boys’ mag Speed & Power. “I re­mem­ber be­ing com­pletely blown away.”

Clarke, you think, would surely ap­prove

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