Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ghost Grandma in Space: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds has been on my to-read list for years.  I've liked some of Reynolds's stuff, like last year's Hugo finalist Slow Bullets (although I honestly didn't love his much beloved Revelation Space).  What struck me about Blue Remembered Earth was was that it's SF set in about 150 years in a world where African countries are basically running things with a little help from India and China - I'm intrigued!  I'm glad I finally got to it, although it's not quite what I expected.

Reynolds starts slow and takes a long time to get going, but somehow this slowness didn't make me feel bogged down.  It took me awhile to get through this, but that's because I had to put it down for awhile to get through a couple library books and my Hugo packet.  This novel definitely could have been shorter, but I didn't mind the leisurely ride.

The plot begins with Geoffrey Akinya, a biologist in Tanzania who just wants to be left alone to study his beloved elephants.  But Geoffrey happens to be a member of a rich and powerful family.  When the matriarch of the family dies (Eunice, Geoffrey's grandmother), his cousins send him to the moon to pick up his grandmother's safety deposit box.  Also, while he's there, he visits his sister, Sunday, who is an artist on the moon.  This trip leads Geoffrey and Sunday on a bit of wild goose chase across the solar system that I don't want to spoil.

Along the way we're introduced to all sorts of cool SF ideas: people can "ching" or inhabit a robot body remotely to interact with people (or they can even make a semi-autonomous copy of themselves), there are near-(?)sentient AIs, most inhabited parts of the Earth, moon, and Mars have a surveillance mechanism that also stops violent crime, Geoffrey is experimenting with software that lets him do something like a mind meld with the elephants, there's a faction called the Panspermians that sees humanity's destiny to spread all life on Earth across the galaxy, there are hints of aliens and technology that could lead to interstellar travel (although we stay in the solar system, following the trend of James S. A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312), Grandma Eunice, of course, turns out to have been dabbling in a lot more than she was letting on  ... and this is really just scratching the surface.  There's a lot of science fictional fun to be had.

The Philosophy Report: What Do We Owe Ghost Grandma?  Africa-in-Name-Only?

Philosophically, there's a lot to think about when it comes to the legacy of family, especially those family members who are no longer with us.  What, if anything, do we owe the deceased?  Can people influence us from beyond the grave, especially if they're as powerful as Eunice?  Can we escape our familial backgrounds and obligations?  Should we?  Widening the view a bit, the novel also gets into questions about thinking on a larger scale: should we think more carefully about our descendants hundreds or even thousands of years in the future?  What will that mean with technologies that make for longer life spans or for the blurring between human and machine, not to mention artificial intelligence?  Would near total surveillance be a small price to pay for the mostly utopian society of Blue Remembered Earth?

As long as this novel is, it's definitely the first book in a series.  There are still plenty of unanswered questions.  Reynolds seems to be working slowly toward even bigger things, and I'll probably pick up the next one to see where he's going.

One odd thing about the novel - the part I didn't expect - is that for all the fuss on the back cover about it being Africa-centered, there's very little in the way of African cultural connections.  I understand that this is primarily a book about all the gee whiz technology stuff and I don't expect Reynolds to produce a dissertation on the cultures of East Africa, but he could have done a little bit of research to give some impression that his main characters are from the part of the world we now call Tanzania.  Even the mythological references are almost all Western.  Surely there are some great mythological references from Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, etc. that would be even better.  I feel like this was a huge missed opportunity, especially for a novel that has living with a family legacy as one of its central themes.

Granted, the legacy of Western colonialism may still be with us in 150 years, which blurs the lines between "Western" and "non-Western" (most of the blurring goes from West to non-West, of course).  Still, aside from some names and geographical locations and the fact that we are frequently told the main characters are speaking Swahili, there's nothing particularly important or noteworthy about the fact that most of the terrestrial parts of the novel take place in East Africa.  

Reynolds is more focused on the scientific aspects, and of course there's no reason that African people can't be focused on science.  Nonetheless, I found this "Africa-in-name-only" aspect of the book to be a bit odd.  But on the other hand, that a big name British SF writer has written a book with exactly zero white characters is itself kind of interesting.

If you want SF stories richly textured with African mythology and history, you're better off reading Nnedi Okorafor (you should read her even if you don't care about that stuff, because she's awesome).  But if your cup of tea is a slow-starting, crazy ride through some intriguing hard SF territory, some of which happens to be in East Africa, then Reynolds has something for you.

Rating: 88/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. Granted, the legacy of Western colonialism may still be with us in 150 years, which blurs the lines between "Western" and "non-Western"...

    I wonder if this is comparable to the cultural echoes left by the Roman Empire that are still with us today?

    1. Good comparison. Of course, cultural influence has been going every which way for thousands and thousands of years. This idea some people have of cultures as self-contained units sealed off from everything else has never actually been true. A lot of what we think of as "Western" including the Roman Empire includes plenty of influence from other parts of the world. I prefer to think of ancient Greece and Rome and "ancient Mediterranean" with tons of influence from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They only became "Western" as a sort of massive ret con job in the last few hundred years (a project that is probably itself a result of Western colonialism). Plato would not have thought of himself as part of the same culture as a bunch of barbarians in Germany or England.

      Many African countries just gained independence about 50 years ago, so that legacy isn't going away anytime soon. Not that Reynolds talks about that at all in this book. It could have been interesting to explore what the cultures of the future would be like, but that's just not the kind of book this is. It's more the "let's place basically early 21st century Western people in a setting with some cool tech" kind of science fiction, although he starts to get into the cultural effects of near-total surveillance technology and then backs off from really exploring it. This book doesn't have the sort of historical consciousness you get in say, Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning or for that matter in Frank Herbert's Dune books. But hard science fiction is rarely is like that, except maybe for someone like Kim Stanley Robinson.