Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles, a novel-length sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa."  It really does feel a lot like reading Arthur C. Clarke but with a few modernizations, including the presence of a few actual women (granted, most of them don't have particularly major parts, but there is at least one prominent alien gendered as female and she's not even sexy to human males, so that's something).

Clarke is one of my all time favorites, and my favorite of the so-called Big Three ahead of Asimov and Heinlein.  Reading Clarke as a teenager, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, is what got me fully hooked on science fiction literature (as opposed to science fiction movies and TV, which I had been enjoying as long as I can remember).  In fact, Clarke's mind-expanding Big Ideas also probably helped set me on the path to becoming a philosopher.  Thinking about human origins and destinies, the vastness of time and space, and the fathomless mysteries of the universe is what continues to draw me to both science fiction and philosophy. (It also motivates this blog!).

Since Clarke took his own journey through the Star Gate in 2008, he's not producing anything new (at least that we know of - maybe he's working as a Star Child somewhere).

So what's a Clarke fan filled with nostalgia to do?  Here's where Baxter and Reynolds come in!  They wrote a novel as as sequel to Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa," in which Howard Falcon descends into the atmosphere of Jupiter and discovers life in the form of giant, two-kilometer-wide creatures he calls medusae.  The story ends with a tantalizing line that the main character, half-human and half-machine, lived on for centuries.  The Medusa Chronicles is that story.  (It was also cool to re-read Clarke's novella and to read the sequel soon after the recent real life photos of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft).

I don't want to spoil the story, but it involves a few returns to Jupiter as well as trips to Mercury, Saturn, the Oort Cloud, and more.  Falcon becomes something like the Forest Gump of the next millennium of the history of the solar system, present at or responsible for almost every major historical event.  As the original story hints at, there's a conflict between the humans and machines and Falcon is in a unique place with regard to this history.

I could say more about the human-machine conflict and whether all the hype, coming even from the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, about whether AIs will want to kill us is justified (I say not).  But saying much more about that in this review might involve unforgivable spoilers.

Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was

So instead I want to talk about nostalgia.  What's going on with books like this that try to feed into nostalgia?  Does it work?  What's the point?  Shouldn't I just read Clarke again?

Like I mentioned at the beginning, one great thing about this is that it captures some of the good stuff about Clarke (the Big Ideas) without some of his draw backs (like the fact that women barely exist in most of his work).  This is somewhat like a recent all women anthology of Lovecraft-inspired stories, She Walks in Shadows, that tries to take some of Lovecraft's cool ideas without the racism and misogyny.

But maybe we'd be better off creating new stuff.  I think this is what much of Baxter's work has done.  He's probably one of the more Clarkean SF authors working today.  He even collaborated with Clarke on a series of books.

Maybe there's a cash-in element.  As in Hollywood, sequels and remakes are all the rage because people like what's familiar, or at least it's easier to market what's familiar.  Sure, that explains things like the 2017 Baywatch movie (I mean, who even wanted such an abomination?), but big Clarke fans are probably already reading Baxter and Reynolds or authors like them.  It's kind of a niche market.

Is it a way to honor Clarke's memory?  A way to continue the story?

Whatever it is, I can say I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles.  It didn't feel exactly like Clarke.  But it was in a similar vein.  On that count it's way better than those latter day Dune books, which are sort of pulpy, dumbed-down versions of the original sometimes called "McDune" (not that I haven't enjoyed some of them just to spend more time in the Dune universe).

Does nostalgia work?  Can you ever re-capture the past?  Is it a good idea to do so?  Like I've said with regard to nostalgia-fests like Stranger Things, you have to use nostalgia responsibly.  For one thing, it's never going to reproduce the original.  I'll never again feel exactly like I did when I was 14 or 15 and read Clarke for the first time.

The danger of nostalgia is that it can encourage us to rewrite the past to misremember it.  (Case in point: making America great again?  For who?  When?)  As much as I love Clarke, when I do read him again I notice that some of his dialogue and exposition is honestly not that great.  And his stories mostly take place in some alternative universe where women make up about 2% of the population.

It's complicated to love something but also admit that it has serious problems.  And the danger of nostalgia is that it can encourage a willful amnesia in which your love for a thing must be all or nothing (one might say this is a problem of our contemporary political culture as well).  But one of the things Clarke taught me (a lesson I'm honestly not sure Baxter and Reynolds have replicated as well as they could have) is that everything is more complicated, more mysterious than you think it is.  Nostalgia can be wonderful in moderation, but it can also flatten the layers of the universe into a single rosy-hued escapism that robs you of your access to the very sorts of Big Ideas that Clarke's imperfect works points to.

Rating: 87/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. ...whether AIs will want to kill us...

    I'm not really worried about AI's wanting to pull a Skynet on us. In fact given the individual living in the White House right now I'd vote for an AI for president if it was a rational and enlightened entity.

    1. Good point. I've often thought the fear of AIs gets it exactly wrong. We might be better off with AIs running at least some things, an idea you can find in the Culture series from Iain M. Banks.

  2. I also read this recently, and also devoured Clarke as a teenager. Rendezvous with Rama, was an early favourite. Reynolds was the draw for me. At his best, he is enthralling. To some extent Reynolds managed to head off Baxter's penchant for long passages of science exposition, that have long put me off reading his books. Baxter always seems to me to be a frustrated physics teacher. But the book never really seemed to take off. It was episodic, partly because of the time frame I suppose. Asimov gets around this with strong relatable characters in the Foundation series.

    Sure the lack of women in Clarke looks problematic now, though stories of male friendship never get old for me. I moved seamlessly from SciFi and Tolkien into Patrick O'Brian's novels about sail ships during the Napoleonic wars on this basis.

    In this book, who exactly do I relate to? The AI? The Cyborg? Both seemed to be two dimensional and unlikeable - we're not supposed to like them I think. They are inhuman, though both rather simplistically motivated by single issues. So when it came to the denouement as a reconciliation between two characters whose antagonism didn't really matter except as a plot device, I didn't care.

    To me this seemed like an intellectual exercise in novel writing, not like a novel. Moving pieces around a board, with some speculative metaphysics, but lacking some of the basics of storytelling.

    One of the things that baffles me is the way that these kinds of books deal with disasters. We've had a few in the UK recently, and wherever people's lives are affected, there is chaos and devastation. It takes us aback, knocks the wind from our sails, etc. (Naval jargon is wonderful for these situations). So how is it that the whole of earth can be destroyed and humanity just rebuilds somewhere else and shows no signs of distress. Even Douglas Adams' scifi comedy HHGTTG does a better job of this, as Arthur says "I feel like a military academy, bits of me keep passing out".

    Forget the issues of the humanity of the AI or the cyborg, where is the humanity of the *humans* in the book?


    1. Thank you for your comment. This is definitely not quite the same as Clarke. I actually found most of the story engrossing as a sort of playing out of Clarke's original story, but I agree that this makes it more an exercise in novel writing as you say. I like the main cyborg and AI characters, but they could have had more depth. I didn't entirely understand why the AIs did what they did other than to cash out a line from the end of Clarke's story. One wonders if Clarke would have done a better job himself.

      A lack of a human touch is one of the big criticisms of Clarke himself (especially from people who gravitate more toward Asimov or Heinlein). His work is often heady, abstract stuff focused more on ideas than people. If anything, I'd say The Medusa Chronicles touches too little on the big, abstract ideas.

      I'm actually a fan of Baxter slightly more than Reynolds. I've particularly enjoyed his books Evolution and Ultima, and I'm trying to read some of his Xeelee sequence. I enjoyed Reynolds's Revelation Space and Slow Bullets, but neither grabbed me quite the same way as Baxter's work has, although I just started his book, Blue Remembered Earth, and I've enjoyed the first few chapters.

      I think reading a lot of Clarke and Asimov growing up and becoming an academic later have contributed to making me totally fine with info-dumping. Science fiction requires the reader to digest a lot of information so info dumping is necessary to some extent unless you want to leave the reader totally in the dark. Showing-not-telling doesn't work as well in SF as it does in other types of literature (this is one of my complaints about authors like China Mieville and Yoon Ha Lee).

  3. ...

    Clarke was interested, as am I, in the idea of meeting the other. I love the first contact subgenre (though much of it is nonsensical). His book was about a man making contact with an entirely different form of life and discovering that it was, in many ways, a mirror of us. This is the classic liberal vision of otherness - if we look closely enough, the differences will cease to matter, and the other will be like us and share our liberal values (which is one reason liberals don't understand politicians like Trump or Le Pen). What is the vision of The Medusa Chronicles? I've no idea.

    This is where I think Reynolds falls over. His principal "other" is a mindless goo that replicates uncontrollably and eventually takes over the galaxy destroying everything. There's an essential nihilism there that is entirely absent in Clarke. For Clarke, SciFi was an expression of his optimism for technology helping humanity to expand out into space and discover wonders. Reynolds at his best spins a good yarn, but he doesn't have Clarke's post-War optimism for humanity.

    I guess for our generation (I think Reynolds is roughly my age) the Alien films are our archetype (I was 14 when it came out). It's the Cold War in archetypal form. Here the other is implacably hostile and has an unstoppable lust for blood; and the liberals die first. Meeting the other is a winner take all situation; but one in which the hero is being manipulated by a shadowy corporate entity. Even the android is murderous (no input from Asimov there!). It's Cold War oppression and paranoia, but also a kind of atavism, a throw-back to imperialist days when indigenous peoples were being wiped out by an unholy alliance of commerce and military force. We fear that we are the monsters... and of course we are.

    I ground my way through this book without much enthusiasm or interest, because having started it, I wanted to see how it ended. The end was a let down. A good example of the "sunk cost fallacy". High concept SciFi always runs the risk of being cold and/or boring. To be *both* seems like lack of effort from these two.

    1. Compared to Clarke, The Medusa Chronicles had less of a vision, except maybe for a hint of Clarke's. On that note, I liked the ending and found it to be one of the more Clarkean aspects of the book.

      As for your other point, I'm about ten years younger, but I've always loved the Alien movies (I even liked the most recent one). But I also like Clarke-Asimov-Star Trek science fiction optimism. I think this is what I like most about Iain M. Banks: he finds a way to channel SF optimism while acknowledging an element of SF cynicism. Utopia is never going to be perfect and might even be existentially terrifying. Nonetheless, it could be a hell of a lot better than what we've got now.

      There's a hint of ambivalence in Clarke, too, for all his optimism. I remember reading an essay called "The Cosmic Loneliness of Arthur C. Clarke," which highlights the deep sense of melancholy in much of his work (e.g., Childhood's End).

  4. Inspired by Sir Arthur C. Clarke's short story A Meeting with Medusa, this novel, with permission from the Clarke Estate, continues the story of Commander Howard Falcon over centuries of space-exploration, interaction with AI, first contact and beyond. All brought to life by two of our greatest SF authors, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds. Howard Falcon almost lost his life in an accident ...and a combination of human ingenuity and technical expertise brought him back. Not as himself, but as an augmented human: part man, part machine, and exceptionally capable.

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