Book review: "Blue Remembered Earth" by Alastair Reynolds
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
My life changed when I read the Revelation Space saga in the early 2000s, and Alastair Reynolds has been one of my favorite authors ever since.
This is not for the quality of his writing, which sometimes veers from space opera to soap opera, or unironically treats conversations between people with the nuanced and emotional complexity of two Roombas bumping into each other repeatedly.
Rather, my love for Reynolds stems from my love of his sci-fi ideas. In his flagship Revelation Space series alone, some of the more exciting narrative ideas included Yellowstone, the Melding Plague, the Shrouders, the Inhibitors, the Greenfly, and the lighthuggers with their Conjoiner drives and ice cladding. Any single one of these ideas is brilliant, and their weaving together resulted in an almost unbelievably effective smorgasbord of creative imagery and narrative tension that will always constitute one of my favorite sci-fi stories.
The end result was that, for more than a decade, seeing a new Alastair Reynolds book in a bookstore meant I would be going home with at least one new book that day, no questions asked, no first pages read to check the quality of the book. This has tended to pay off, especially for Reynolds' superb one-off novel House of Suns.
None of this would be the case if my first Reynolds book had been Blue Remembered Earth.
This book is not bad...
The writing mostly does its job (or some job, anyway). In fact, it seems like Reynolds was beginning to explore subtler tones and modes of writing with this book, compared to his earlier works. Meanwhile, the narrative is mostly self-consistent and avoids some of Reynolds' more melodramatic or unbelievable vibes from previous books. (No deeply awkward Thorn plotlines here.) As a wordsmith, Reynolds is still not amazing, but he has grown.
...but what was its point?
The entire time I was reading Blue Remembered Earth, I could not figure out what I was supposed to care about. Or which mysteries were relevant. Or which questions I should invest in. By the end, I was still wondering all of those things.
Why did I just read this?
Which of the events in this book actually mattered to the driving narrative?
Was there a driving narrative?
If so...what was it?
This book is the first of a trilogy, which means I've now read a third of the total story.
Yet I still have no idea what it's about, and almost no motivation to continue reading so that I can learn what happens next.
This is odd for a book written by the same mind that invented Revelation Space. In that series, the end of each book left me craving the start of the next. Yet right now, the remembered strength of this author's previous big narrative is the only reason I plan on reading the next book in this trilogy.
On that note, let's move onto some other noteworthy specifics, both bad and good.
Bad: Ironic self-reference never works as well as the writer thinks it's working
Most of the way through the book, one of the main characters gets irritated and verbalizes that they have been bouncing along this whole time without purpose or context, and they don't understand why anything has happened.
This was exactly how I, the reader, had been feeling for several hundred pages by that point.
Seeing a character voice my frustrations just made things worse, because it called attention to an apparent self-awareness on Reynolds' part that this story was not cutting it.
More than anything, this scene reminded me of a character in a movie saying, "This seems like something that would happen in a movie!"
Boom. Fourth wall broken, and some trust in the author destroyed.
Dear everyone who has ever written anything: Being self-referential in your work is almost never cute or clever. It's almost definitely just obnoxious. Please don't do it. If you must do it, please wait until you are a much, much better writer, then get it out of your system in a first draft, and then listen when your editors tell you to cut that part out of the final copy.
Good: This book does not have white people and does not bother explaining why
This was one of my favorite aspects of this book, and really surprised me coming from such a mainstream Western sci-fi author. In Blue Remembered Earth, all main characters are non-white Africans or Asians. White European-descended people are such a non-issue that they're basically not discussed, or their absence explained, anywhere. It's a wonderful inversion of the standard narrative tendencies among authors in Reynolds' demographic, wherein white people seem to be the only ones hanging around in sci-fi futures, or at least the only ones who get to be heroes there. Even better: It's a wonderful inversion of the fact that in so much similar sci-fi, the absence of black people is seen as so unremarkable that it's not even worth explaining. This is the first time I've seen a white sci-fi author flip that cultural default upside down, and I loved it.
Bad: The main characters are shallow and unmemorable, and their interactions are not believable
Blue Remembered Earth centers around a cast of siblings and cousins from the family Akinya. Each sibling or cousin has a central gimmick that seems to be a cardboard placeholder for more in-depth character development that was supposed to happen but got cut for some reason.
Take Geoffrey, who is perhaps the main character as we follow his viewpoint the most. Geoffrey loves elephants, and supposedly researches them. We hear about these facts endlessly during the story, but what they seem to boil down to narratively is that we occasionally witness Geoffrey letting the elephants see him and his airplane, and also occasionally witness him trying to merge his perceptions with the elephants' using black-box telepathic machinery that the reader is supposed to accept without explanation. Thus, for a scientific researcher, Geoffrey seems to do very little to no actual science. He also shows such technical ineptitude and cluelessness in other contexts throughout the rest of the book that, by the end, I found it impossible to believe he had played any role in the design or installation of the elephant telepathy brain machines that are supposedly his professional research centerpiece.
The other main viewpoint character, Sunday, seemed a little more believable to me. However, this could be because she is developed so slightly that we never get a chance to discover her character's shallowness by being guided to dive into it, only to hit our heads on the bottom, ala Geoffrey. Basically, Sunday is an artist, she wants to create "real" art, she hates selling generic African statues to restaurants, she made a pop-up graffiti on a subway wall under the Moon, and she compiled all the Solar System's Wikipedia entries on her grandma into a simulation that usually ends up being unavailable because it turns out the Solar System from Mars outward still mostly lacks Wi-Fi. This all sounds like it could be intriguing in principle, but the problem is that in a book nearly 600 pages long, this paragraph of details you just read is approximately the extent of what we learn about one of the two main viewpoint characters as an independent human being.
The remaining two main characters are the Akinya cousins, Hector and Lucas. These characters are both businesspeople, and at least one of them likes tennis (I think). Beyond that, they are both so maldeveloped and interchangeable that, even by the end of the book, I still could not tell one from the other, or even picture them at all.
Geoffrey and Sunday hate Hector and Lucas. Or at least, so we are told. And it must be true, because at one point Geoffrey tries to shoot one of them!
But I never believed any of this. It felt like a child's shallow sibling rivalry was written originally, and then pasted into the context of adult interactions in an adult novel. There was no complexity, context, or depth to the animosity. No drug abuse, sexual entanglement, preferential parental treatment, or any other historical conflict driver demonstrated on the part of any of these characters. No manic tendencies were discussed in any of these characters' other life contexts, either.
In fact, Geoffrey is depicted as so well-adjusted that he retains a healthy and productive relationship with what I assume was a former romantic partner of some sort. As much as this should be the norm in our society and is admirable to model in fiction, it's certainly not an intrinsically easier skill than managing one's relationship with one's immediate blood relatives, yet that is what is (unconvincingly) implied in this book.
The end result is that, the way these characters are written, I never once believed the conflict between them. What I would have believed from these characters, as they are written, is that they could all sit down, as adults, in an adult conversational setting, ask some simple adult-level questions of each other, and clear all their miscommunications right up. And this is what I constantly read as happening, until Reynolds has them narrate yet again to themselves how much they just hate their cousins!
The entire intra-Akinya conflict felt like a contrived dynamic arbitrarily forced into this story to drive narrative tension that was not consistently derived from any other narrative source.
And let's not forget about everyone's grandma, Eunice, who we're repeatedly told is famous for too many reasons to list, but whose accomplishments as demonstrated in this novel are all things that the general public would not know about. So, why is she famous?
By the end of the book, I still had no idea what the point was, or why I should read the next installment. The writing, while more subtle and refined than Reynolds' earlier writing, was not good enough on its own to hold my interest, so I was kept bored and waiting for a central narrative motivation that never appeared. The overall experience was one of mediocre sci-fi events strung together without meaning, with competent but never exciting prose, inhabited by mostly unbelievable and boring characters, all of which is far from my expectations for a Reynolds novel after the Revelation Space saga and House of Suns. If this book were my first encounter with the author, I would not read the next installment.
Read if you are a Reynolds completionist, or if you have infinite free time and literally cannot read enough sci-fi to be satisfied. If one of those conditions isn't met, then you are probably an adult with a time budget to manage, and I recommend you read any of the hundreds of better sci-fi novels out there, including many of Reynolds' earlier works.
After reading the entire trilogy, I will revisit and reevaluate this review, to see if anything needs to be updated. Until then, please take this as a purely standalone review for Blue Remembered Earth, outside the context of the remainder of the trilogy.