The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

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I don’t have a detailed memory of what happened in Meeting with Medusa, which should be concerning because The Medusa Chronicles is a sequel to that classic story. It was about an astronaut crashing a hot air balloon into Jupiter, where he encounters gaseous life forms and living kites, and a talking chimp might also have been involved. On this blog I’m always saying ‘this story will only make sense if you’ve read the ones before’, but surprisingly The Medusa Chronicles works well as a standalone novel.

The impressively named adventurer Howard Falcon, transformed into a cyborg after his Jupiter experience, frequently finds himself the negotiator between humanity and sentient Machines. That’s not too surprising, considering the whole cyborg thing and that he mentored Adam, first Machine to gain self-awareness. Surprising is one way to describe some of the events Falcon is involved in over the course of his functionally immortal lifespan, like the planetary conflict between Earth and the other human worlds, the aggressively aloof development of Machine civilization, and the inevitable returns to Jupiter. Although at times Falcon’s experiences feel like a string of short stories connected only by a common setting and cast, the tense relationship between mankind and the machines that would replace it ensured that The Medusa Chronicles read like a proper novel.

I like artificial intelligences with a sense of humour. Dry wit can humanise a robot, even though that shouldn’t make sense, and Adam has a little bit of that going on. Early on during the Machine rebellion he angrily refers to Falcon as ‘dad’, suggesting a sort of robotic adolescence that I hope didn’t have a sexual component. Towards the end Adam says something quite profound: ‘When I consider humanity, I cannot help but laugh’. If Einstein or the Da Lai Lama said that, people would be smugly parroting the quote so often they’d have trouble breathing. It’d be plastered all over Facebook, complete with a picture of whoever said to ensure that the viewer knew the source was famous. To see a robot with such profound sensibilities is really impressive – it really explodes the dull soulless robot cliche. And why shouldn’t a robot produce such thoughtful utterances? We’ve already got a random Deepak Chopra quote generator, so it doesn’t seem implausible. Adam shows that robots don’t need to be flat characters, and they’re generally better if they’re not.

As a sequel to a 1971 story, The Medusa Chronicles initially features a setting far more utopian than I’m used to seeing in contemporary science fiction. I’m talking harmonious one-world government born from a Soviet/American alliance, world peace and apparently no worries about the environment. References to other Clarke works, like space elevators and black obelisks, provide further nostalgic verisimilitude. Human civilization eventually devolves into the sort of militaristic dystopia Baxter wrote about in his Xeelee sequence, but the happy Arthur C. Clarke future is fascinating to read about while it survives. Reynolds and Baxter make it work by situating the Medusa Chronicle’s future in an alternate timeline where the two Cold War rivals cooperated to deflect an asteroid in the late sixties. I hope the Medusa Chronicles kickstarts a craze of contemporary sci-fi authors writing in the worlds of their iconic predecessors.

The only bad thing I have to say about this book isn’t even that bad – the chapters are very short. Some are as long as three pages. I don’t understand this at all. The authors could’ve save a lot of trees if they’d combined the shorter chapters.

If you’ve been following this blog for while, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m going to recommend this book. For science fiction fans, obviously, but in particular I think that this would be a great read for anyone who idolizes Arthur C. Clarke. At the same time, it works even if you have no idea who never read that guy. Now I need to some solo Alastair Reynolds…

 

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