The Medusa Chronicles
Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
London: Gollancz, 2016
Two of Britain’s leading science fiction writers have joined together to pay homage to and update the work of one of the greats of the genre, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke had written a novella published in 1971 entitled ‘A Meeting with Medusa’ that was, characteristically, both revolutionary in terms of scientific understanding and rather conservative in terms of characterization and the portrayal of social and personal relations.
In the original, a single Anglo-Saxon explorer, who has been partly rebuilt as a cyborg as a result of a previous aerial misfortune, pilots a spacecraft into the atmosphere of Jupiter and there encounters a number of strange and mind-expanding alien creatures. He also interacts with his evolved monkey crew and eventually frees them from their enforced servitude on the ship. This is the background to the current book, which envisages the protagonist, Howard Falcon, being progressively upgraded as his mechanical parts reach the ends of their working lives such that his lifespan is enormously extended. As a result, he is able to observe and occasionally participate in the encounters between humanity (both foolish and sensitive) and the machine life whose origin is indicated in the back cover blurb. It becomes a fascinating alternative future history of the type for which Baxter is particularly noted, although the narrative remains somewhat hindered by the deadweight of Falcon himself, who acts as something of an anchor on a book seeking to take flight.
It is tempting, when reading fiction that has been produced by more than one author, to try to guess who has written which section. Tempting but probably ultimately futile because the writing process using contemporary technology can see multiple drafts of different sections being created without difficulty. Even if the authors themselves do not come to create a homogeneous text, then editors exist whose job it is to ensure that a smooth manuscript results. These are, after all, not insignificant figures in the publishing world and it would be expected that a collaboration between them would attract fans of one or both of them and shift, therefore, a lot of units.
This is a very interesting and sometimes even exciting story, particularly with respect to the consideration of how machine intelligences would develop over extended periods of time. One of the problems of such a lengthy timeline is that even though some other characters are allowed to linger in different forms, it becomes difficult to have much emotional engagement with other people who may pop up along the way and, further, the possibility of revealing character development through personal relations is also limited. Still, as I have written before, people who come to a science fiction novel expecting complex personal relationships are likely to be disappointed more often than not. Instead, readers are recommended to sit back and enjoy the ride.
The ending of the book makes it possible that there could be a sequel, although I imagine both Baxter and Reynolds, each of whom is quite prolific in publishing, would find it difficult to schedule more time to do so. I find myself somewhat ambivalent about this since, on the one hand, it would be fun to explore a distant future, on the other hand such a book would seem to be too far removed from the point of this first book while at the same time being hampered by having to retain the existing characters and set-up. Perhaps it will be better to let the authors return to their own imagination and bring forth more marvelous things therefrom.