On the Steel Breeze

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On the Steel Breeze is a 2013 novel by Welsh author Alastair Reynolds, the second of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Africa is a global technological and economic power, the inner planets and some of the more hospitable gas giant moons have been settled, and humanity (and indeed all of nature) is watched over by the Mechanism. The novel, along with its predecessor, is mostly utopian: there is no more war, no more hunger, apparently no real need to work (one of the minor characters is a luthier – though by this point manufacturing produces an objectively superior instrument). Any attempt at violence warrants intervention from the Mech – try to throw a punch and it will incapacitate you before your fist hits the other’s face. (It’s hinted that even a wild animal, if attacking a human being, can be killed or at least stopped by the Mech.) Consequently, there is no violent crime. The utopian veneer starts to wear here: humans are shown to be overly dependent on the Mech and the aug, the layer of information and communication facilitated by the Mech.

Recently humanity, with the aid of the Mech-controlled telescope Ocular, has discovered what’s clearly an alien artifact, which they call Mandala, on an apparently habitable exoplanet named Crucible. Several sleeper ships, called holoships, each with millions of people, have launched to colonize Crucible and study Mandala. As a vanguard, humanity has sent Providers, enormous and sophisticated robots to build and otherwise prepare the surface for human colonization.

All of this is of course backdrop for the story: Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday, one of the protagonists from the previous book, Blue Remembered Earth, and the great-granddaughter of Eunice, the matriarch of the venerable Akinya family and the one person who can be said to have touched off the entire saga and now asleep in deep space aboard her ship, the Winter Queen. Chiku is a tripartite person, having cloned two copies of herself and altered each copy’s memories and physiology – and those of her own – in such a way that it’s impossible to tell who was the original. The three of them, Chiku Yellow, Chiku Green, and Chiku Red, each has a mission: Chiku Green goes with one of the holoships to Crucible, Chiku Red goes out into deep space to find the Winter Queen, and Chiku Yellow stays back on Earth to… coordinate? That part wasn’t exactly clear, or my memory fails me.

That’s when things start to go wrong. Chiku Red is lost in deep space, terminally wounded; Chiku Green fights to allow potentially dangerous research into “post-Chibesa physics” in order to enable a shorter slowdown before the caravan of holoships reaches Crucible; Chiku Yellow cuts off her sisters and tries to live a normal life in Lisbon. She is drawn back into the action when she learns that the images sent back from Ocular have been doctored by someone or something, and that around Crucible orbit twenty-two enormous structures of unknown origin and purpose.

Lots of interesting ideas here:

  • Chiku’s trifurcation;
  • the Mech and the aug, and their positive as well as negative ramifications;
  • the apparent universality of what I call “Golem anxiety”, or fear that your artificial-life creations will become powerful enough to destroy you;
  • inverting the cyborg idea: rather than extending organic ability with technology, an embodied AI (called here an artilect) is extended with neurological patterns from an organic;
  • uplifted elephants (really!);
  • the exhaustion of the West and the taking up of its mantle by Africa, China, and India;
  • longevity therapies enabling lifetimes of hundreds of years;
  • a Panspermian initiative, founded by aquatic posthumans beyond the reach of the Mech and the aug, with the express goal (as one might expect with a name like the Panspermian initiative) of spreading earth life as far and wide as possible;
  • the Evolvarium, a Darwin’s-playground of murderous machines, on Phobos;
  • a single family – the Akinyas – finding (or placing) itself time and again at the center of history unfolding. For that matter, the saga revolving around a family rather than a character.

It would be a jumbled mess if Reynolds tried to cram all this into one book, but thankfully as part of a trilogy the book introduces only some of these ideas while expanding others from the previous book.

If I have one complaint, and one that is slightly more true of this book than of Blue Remembered Earth, it is this: if not for the names of characters, their memories of places born in or visited, and the occasional mention that people are speaking Swahili or Zulu, a reader would not have any idea that most of the characters are African, or at least part-African (Chiku’s father has an Indian name). There is nothing here distinctly African, culturally or politically, from the West. This might satisfy today’s exhausted westerner: it just feels good to witness a civilization, one which has suffered slavery and colonialism and all else that has been thrown at it, become dominant. All’s well that ends well, right? Maybe now we can stop feeling so guilty about the actions of our ancestors. At the same time, with western norms and institutions grafted onto foreign cultures and powers, we can feel comfortable that we were right about liberal democracy broadly, and the modern managerial state as its final form. It doesn’t feel foreign and it doesn’t challenge our cherished beliefs, so we can have our cake and eat it, too.

But this is my one complaint! The rest of the book is solid hard SF, packed with lots of great ideas – too many for a single book, but that’s why we have a series. What I really love about it is this: the tone is positive. The future is optimistic. The plot presents mysteries to solve and challenges to overcome, but doesn’t present the world as having technologically advanced but spiritually or morally declined. Government is basically benign, evil corporations are not raping the planet, people are not listless and self-destructive. It feels like Star Trek without Starfleet or warp drive. (Reynolds, being an astrophysicist by training, has made the science more realistic than that of Star Trek.) People engage in petty politics but it doesn’t result in megadeaths. The Mech-as-nanny is presented as a mostly-good thing, an admission that, no, maybe we can’t handle ourselves in the moment but by binding ourselves we can live up to our own expectations. The problem with the Mech is not that it limits our freedom but that it causes our agency to atrophy. The Mech is an imperfect hack, but it serves its function.

I recommend both this book and its predecessor for fans of optimistic, hard SF.