THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES
Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds homage Arthur C Clarke.
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 No, we’re not talking about time travel, but the notion that we grow up with ideas about what lies ahead that are superseded by subsequent events, yet which continue to exert an influence on our imaginations.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