Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alastair Reynolds - On the Steel Breeze

Another book review I posted at Goodreads, if you can stand it

Alastair Reynolds On the Steel Breeze British book jacket
Spoilers of a sort:

I have long been a major fan of Reynolds' short fiction, but I've found his novels to be more hit-and-miss. I enjoyed Pushing Ice pretty well, and Chasm City, too, but Terminal World left little impression on me, while I was unable to finish both the first Revelation Space book, and The Prefect.

I think he's turned a corner with The Poseidon's Children series. Blue Remembered Earth was sitting on my bookshelf for over a year when I finally picked it up, but once I started, I finished it quickly, at least considering my usual pace. I immediately ordered On The Steel Breeze through SFBC, and that too was finished quickly. These books are in fact page turners.

Both books highlight sprawling and complex futures, against which brisk and mysterious plots are set, but that part of it is nothing new for Reynolds. Where he breaks new ground is in his characterization. Geoffrey and Sunday in the first book, and Chiku in the second, are well-drawn characters who act not simply in the interest of moving the story forward, but in the deeper way that is true to themselves. A consequence is that these characters make mistakes. Reynolds never gets so intrusive as to say, "hey look at these people screwing up!"--he just presents their decisions, and allows the reader to consider the consequences. Chiku in the newer one, especially, makes her share of mistakes. She's smart, decisive, and the kind of person who makes their mark, and you like her as she moves through the tale--but she's also arrogant, and probably a little cold.

One of any author's biggest challenges is transferring the needs of the story onto the characters. You need the characters to initiate action, else you have no story. But it can only be believable when you've constructed the character such that the decisions that are necessary for the story don't contravene human logic, or more importantly, human nature.

Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds passes the test in On The Steel Breeze. Chiku lies to herself a little bit about how important her family is to her. Yes, as far as story mechanics, that why she's the character that's being written about, why she's the character that has the adventures. But to the reader, it simply means that she is believable, and her actions are believable.

It's a neat trick, one that all the best novelists know how to perform, and one that I'm not sure Reynolds had pulled off in his longform work before Blue Remembered Earth.

Another interesting thing going on here is how this book retroactively illuminates its predecessor. In BRE, Reynolds posited something he called The Mechanism, basically a worldwide surveillance system that does quite a bit of good, eliminating crime and war, lost children, etc. He has a small community on the moon that foregoes the thing, but basically it obtains everywhere else. It is just accepted by the major characters, and Reynolds except when he's talking about this one lunar community never even brushes against the pros and cons. Well, in On the Steel Breeze, he gets to it pretty directly, noting one very dramatic objection to The Mechanism. Reynolds in some interviews I've read has been wrestling openly with the consequences of the British survillance state he lives in, but I think in On the Steel Breeze he shows he has made up his mind. Funny--people mentioned how Blue Rememberd Earth was a utopia; this book is in one sense a dystopia, and pretty clearly is something of a treatise on civil liberties. He reminded me in achieving this of Silverberg, always a good thing: like Valentine Pontifex, OTSB retroactively illuminates and elevates the first book in its series.

Jim Burns cover art for Valentine Pontifex
There are a couple things that keep me from giving the book five stars. The first is sort of a small thing, but VERY annoying. Reynolds wishes to present another of his complex characters as voluntarily sexless, which is interesting. What kind of person would give that up? But he never truly addresses the issue, instead highlighting it each and every time in passing by making up a set of personal pronouns for the character. Instead of saying "his" or "her" when referring to this character, Reynolds writes "ver." Instead of "he or "she" Reynolds writes "ve." It's an interesting concept--and it totally fails. PERHAPS if Reynolds had actually addressed the decision this character made to forego a sexual life, and delved into the particulars--but no: there's no way language of this sort can be anything but annoying. A mistake on the author's part.

And it's not particularly unsatisfying, but the fact is that the resolution of the story--the solution to the ultimate problem in the book--occurs offstage. Reynolds sort of explains why that had to be, so clearly he understood that some readers might take issue, but still--given that this grand agreement is some sense is the whole point of the book, I might kind of have liked to have seen it, rather than simply being told about it.

So, not a flawless book, but a very good one, and one that again seems to show Reynolds growing his game.

Through reading his blog, I gather that Reynolds has delivered to his publisher Book 3 of Poseidon's Children. But it's some months before it gets published in his native UK, and given the past history of his books, then some more months before it gets published in the US. So I've got a while to wait for the sequel. But I will be buying it, and I'm pretty sure reading it very quickly thereafter.

4/5 Stars

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

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