I confess that I’ve not done too much reading recently. There’s a couple of things I’ve struggled to get into but for the most part there’s been just too much other stuff going on in the real world to find time to settle down with a good book.
But if there’s an author able to bring me back to reading, then it’s Alastair Reynolds. And the arrival the other week of his new novel ‘On The Steel Breeze’ managed to do just that.
Initially other commitments meant that I was only able to visit the book in bite sized chunks. In general I prefer to immerse myself in a book but, when circumstances prevent that, I actually quite enjoy the serialisation that comes from reading something in small chunks. I also like the fact that this approach means that I’ll have the book around for a while to revel in its world.
Which is all be fine and well but, with the first half of OTSB completed in this fashion, the arrival of the weekend meant that the patient approach went out the window! The best of both worlds, perhaps.
Enough of my reading patterns – to the book itself. ‘On The Steel Breeze’ is the second in a planned trilogy and follows on from last year’s ‘Blue Remembered Earth’. BRE was something of a departure for Reynolds as it was set in a relatively near future, albeit a richly imaginative and different future.
By moving the saga forward in time a couple of centuries, OTSB moves into more familiar far future Reynolds territory. Yet, despite the jump forward in time, OTSB still follows the fortunes of the Akinya family established in the first book. However it’s very much a standalone story with an almost entirely new set of characters (although a very small number of characters from BRE do make cameo appearances) .
It’s a complicated story zipping between earth and deep space through the perspective of one character, Chiku Akinya – albeit one character who has split herself into three separate individuals, one on Earth and two in deep space.
It’s an interesting concept allowing the author to explore not just the differences arising from the different paths the three Chikus take but also the similarities that persist over light years and decades.
I think that the most impressive thing about OTSB is that you’re never quite sure where the story is headed next and that’s true even as the number of remaining pages diminishes rapidly. That’s quite an achievement in itself (and one Hollywood, for example, could look to emulate!).
Another of the striking things about the book is that many of the plot devices the author uses have featured in previous Reynolds novels, notably a generational space fleet (and its associated politics), intelligent machines and an artificial intelligence existing undetected in a wider network.
Yet it doesn’t mean that the plot is in any way predictable. On the contrary, Reynolds finds new ways of using familiar set pieces to provide new outcomes (although it’s perhaps not too much of a spoiler to say that using a space elevator in a Reynolds novel never ends well!)
If Reynolds handles the complicated plot deftly, then the details of the different societies in the story are equally impressive.
One of the key plot points is that the fleet has been boosted on its way by revolutionary technology – but no-one has yet figured out how to slow the ships down when they reach their ultimate destination.
You might think that there would be a strong motivation for the entire fleet to research this rather fundamental problem but instead there are differing approaches taken by the various ships including the all too plausible ‘head in the sand’ option. The ensuing conflict not only fuels the plot but also provides broad analogies with some of the current issues facing our world today.
I’ve barely scratched the surface in describing this epic story, I mean, I’ve not even mentioned the elephants yet. But despite the fact that there’s so many aspects to the plot to talk about I’ve got to finish this piece at some point. (Although I AM particularly curious as to whether or not the Mars based machine society will feature in the third book).
Suffice to say, ‘On The Steel Breeze’ feels like the complete package. It’s right up there with Reynolds best novels and everything I love about his books can be found in these pages.
Alastair Reynolds is appearing at Rothes Halls in Glenrothes as part of Book Week Scotland 2013 on Thursday 28th November 2013 at 7.30 p.m. Tickets available online here or from On At Fife Box Offices.