REVIEW: PROXIMA BY STEPHEN BAXTER & ON A STEEL BREEZE BY AL REYNOLDS

So, I wrote this review a long time ago but I’ve never been happy with it and I tried to rework it and get it to say what I wanted but its never quite worked the way I saw it in my head. The tl:dr version is that while I broadly agree with the criticisms that are levelled at “core sf” I really enjoyed reading these books and I think they suggest that there’s still something in the heart of this genre that is worth preserving – but I don’t think this review explains what it is. And it’s possible there isn’t a theoretical defence, maybe I just like this sort of thing.

Anyway, I’m reading the follow up to Baxter’s book Ultima and Poseidon’s Wake — the final book in Reynold’s trilogy — arrived in the post today, so I thought I should finally put this on the blog. This is a substantially rewritten version of the original review but not necessarily a better one.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, 2013)
On a Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2013)
(a shorter version of this review originally published in Vector 276)

If you travel in certain critical circles then you’ll be aware that “core science fiction” is a corrupted form choking on its own complacency, bereft of the means of addressing the real issues that matter today and, increasingly, not just irrelevant but offensively behind the times. In a recent review of Paul Di Fillipo’s Wikiworld in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paul Graham Raven described the remnants of the genre as an increasingly reactionary residue left behind by the evaporation of its worthwhile elements into the wider culture. Previously, in the same publication, Paul Kincaid (based on the evidence in the 2012 ‘best of’ anthologies) had suggested that “the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion”. In a recent review of David Brin’s Existence (in Vector 273) I experienced my own moment of enraged frustration with the dark heart of sf and its conservative vision of who we are and where we are going.

The case, then, is made. The core of the genre has become a dead weight dragging its remnants ever deeper into a self-referential hole filled with aging white men who peek out at the modern world in confused terror from between the lumps of lost food matted in their scraggly beards. Move on, there’s nothing here but a putrid stench and dreams that are beyond their sell-by-dates.

Against that background come the latest works by two of British sf’s male, middle-aged, white establishment. Stephen Baxter’s Proxima and Alastair Reynolds’ On a Steel Breeze are books that could hardly be more firmly embedded into the heart of science fiction. They are both set in the future and both feature the traditional trappings of the genre – space travel, strange technologies, mysterious planets and encounters with recondite aliens. Both Baxter and Reynolds write well – they plainly take their craft seriously and both continue to develop as writers – but they would concede, I think, that their prose pushes no particular stylistic boundaries. Their characters are functional, embraceable even, and develop logically as the story unfolds but, again, I don’t think either author would argue that they are writing work that provides startling psychological insights.

Given what we’ve already established, then, surely these books can be simply dismissed. This type of sf has nothing to say to us. Its day has been and gone…

So, why did I derive so much pleasure from reading them?

Well, if there are serious flaws in sf’s heart – and there undoubtedly are – then it would be foolish to deny that it has also been sustained by significant strengths and both of these books tap into these roots as effectively as book’s like Brin’s Existence revel in its flaws.

The most obvious of these qualities is the ability to provide a ripping yarn. Storytelling remains crucial to most readers, if not most critics. It is easy, as a voracious reader or one who reads to review, to forget that most of the book-buying audience is not jaded by over-exposure to texts – most people read barely a handful of books a year. The basic appeal of a well-told story is easy to underestimate and easier still to dismiss as juvenile or low-brow. But my guess is that most readers are primarily concerned that the books they read possess the narrative drive to propel them through the pages. Tall tales have been a human companion for as long as we’ve got records, but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed as unsophisticated. There are too many awful attempts at fast-paced page-turners for any sensible critic to deny the skill required to keep the reader’s attention with a plot that works.

All the skills required to produce a really effective page-turner are on display in Baxter’s Proxima. The book is a sleek story delivery system, shark-like in its relentless forward movement and efficiency, and Baxter manages the unravelling of his mystery deftly as each new revelation only raises more questions. The way in which Baxter sweeps the reader along feels effortless but it is, in fact, the result of his precise structure and relentless pacing.

The storytelling in On a Steel Breeze is less apparently effortless. As the second book in a trilogy – following Blue Remembered Earth – the book has characters to shuffle and plot to unfurl. In places this can feel uneven – in particular the story of the Earth-based Chiku Yellow felt as though it had been stretched somewhat beyond its natural length. But, even allowing for these issues, Reynolds has established big puzzles at the heart of this story and he piles upon them layers of intrigue and complexity that keeps the reader moving forward at a good pace.

Another aspect of core science fiction’s strength is its hopefulness. Hope is not fashionable, and there are probably good reasons for that. With tightening resources, a loss of faith in collective institutions and imminent, possibly dramatic, climate change barrelling towards us, being optimistic about the future is tough. It might even be considered dangerously delusional. And yet hope is necessary. If there is no hope for a viable future there is no reason to struggle to make it a better one.

Both Baxter and Reynolds sidestep imminent challenges by setting their stories after humanity has reached some form of equilibrium with our current problems. These worlds, however, have been transformed by the hard choices necessary to survive an age of chaos and the accommodations made to cope with these realities drive both plots. Baxter’s politics are more instantly recognisable, competing nations, a Cold War-ish stand-off and irrational, oppressive governments. Reynolds’ setting is more complex. Much of his world is enmeshed in an intrusive protective network, “The Mechanism”, a compromise which has bought peace, prosperity and security but it is an arrangement that has its refuseniks and, as the story unfolds, a rotten core is being revealed. The concerns raised by Reynolds; personal freedom versus collective security and the intrusion of technologies into our private lives, are unmistakably contemporary and his characters are intimately involved in complex political manoeuvres. Some may find Reynolds’ nods towards a post-colonial politics a touch simplistic, certainly the elephant metaphor he is constructing has, I think, the potential to be problematic but this plotline hasn’t entirely unfolded and I may be underestimating Reynolds. The book’s heart is certainly in the right place.

Baxter’s decision to end Proxima by blowing up the entire solar system – sorry, I should probably have inserted a spoiler warning there – might seem to contradict my idea that these books are basically optimistic, but Baxter provides humanity a literal escape hatch and the universes he creates offer the opportunity for mistakes to be corrected. Ultimately both these books offer at least the intimation of hope that part of humanity is smart enough to think our way out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. And, if that isn’t much, it’s necessary.

The last of the strengths of core science fiction has always been its ability to both vastly enlarge the tapestry on which our cultural and political lives are played out and, simultaneously, to focus on the specific knots and twisted threads that form the bigger picture. This quality of being able – when done well – to both set in their context and reveal the contingencies in the ignored prejudices and cosy assumptions of our present has always been the most interesting weapon in science fiction’s armoury. Both of these books have elements of this effect but it is Reynolds who, with a passage  that made me laugh out loud, elegantly sums up both the absurdity and the (not quite evaporated) charm of core sf. Setting the concerns of a single family against a backdrop the size of the universe he has his matriarch inform us that:

“We’re forging out into deep space. Who knows what we’ll meet out there? If we can’t even accept a robot and some talking elephants, what good are we going to be when we meet something really strange?” (p.99)

There is no other form that is quite as able to imagine the daft, the ridiculous and the bizarre and challenging the reader to take them for granted. And if there’s  anything the last century has taught us it’s that the future is always dafter, more ridiculous and more bizarre than anything we plan for. Science fiction might have been more-or-less useless at predicting the actual future, but it has been, and remains, a useful tool to remind us that what we believe today to be unshakeable truths will be risible hokum a generation or two down the line. And that is a lesson that, as a species prone to unreasonable certainty in our vision of the world as we imagine it, we can’t be reminded of too often.

None of this is to make a blanket defence of core science fiction: I’m certainly not arguing that all is well or that the genre can safely cocoon itself in its own little Dyson sphere and ignore the rest of the universe.  We live in a richer imaginative world for the dissolving of the boundaries between genres and, far too often, core sf has reinforced prejudices and fortified the assumptions of the comfortable.

Nonetheless, these are enjoyable books, perhaps they are not great books, but they are always interesting, intelligent and well-constructed books. They don’t demand that the reader learn a new way of reading or challenge our understanding of genre but they do deliver strong stories that reward attention and support more than just a superficial skimming of the surface.

Perhaps we need not entirely abandon the core of sf just yet.

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