(On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds. Tor, 2014, 483 pp., $26.95)
reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Alastair Reynolds has a great imagination, as witness the setting in this sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. In Steel Breeze, you’ll find masterful descriptions of triplicate clones identical down to neural structure, uplifted elephants (“Tantors”), “holoships” (usually referred to as “generation ships” or “arks”) traveling at sublight speed, excavation of an early space age artifact (Venera 9) on Venus, an artist colony in the interior of the Saturnian satellite Hyperion (structurally, probably the weirdest moon in the solar system), mysterious BIO’s (Big Intelligent Objects) orbiting a nearby habitable planet, life extension to centuries, suspended animation, aquatic humans colonizing the seas, and antagonistic, near-all-controlling AI’s (“artilects”).
In other words, this is space opera on a grand scale. And its technological projections are plausible. Reynolds gets the science right.
The problems with this adventure novel have to do with the characters, plot, and its lack of political, social, economic, cultural, psychological, and ethical interest. It simply doesn’t explore any of these matters. The closest it comes is implying the obvious: that species extinction is an atrocity and that burning fossil fuels is a very bad idea.
The plot problem is that the plot pivots on supposedly smart people doing something very stupid: those in charge of generation ships en route to a nearby star’s habitable planet burning most of their fuel during acceleration, in order to shave a few decades off travel time, with no obvious reason for doing so, and with no plan for slowing down enough to go into orbit around the planet rather than shoot past it. (It requires as much energy to decelerate as it does to accelerate.) This is staggeringly stupid.
And the characters are simply uninteresting. The central characters are two of the three Chiku Akinya clones, with virtually the entire novel narrated from their points of view; and at the end of nearly 500 pages you feel as if you have no idea who they are. You never get inside their heads. Not because they’re mysterious, but because they’re one dimensional. They apparently have no insecurities, sexual desires, jealousies, self-insight, sense of humor, or indeed any of the other traits that make characters individual and memorable.
This novel is essentially a giant pinball machine filled with flashing lights, parts moving in all directions–and nothing more.
(Reynolds has written both very good and very bad novels–mostly good. Those I’d most recommend are Revelation Space, Chasm City, Century Rain, and The Prefect [preferably to be read in that order]. Those I’d recommend avoiding are Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, Diamond Dogs, Terminal World, and Blue Remembered Earth.)
* * *
Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.