On The Steel Breeze. Book Review.

On the Steel BreezeON THE STEEL BREEZE by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, h/b, 496pp, £16.99

Reviewed by Martin Willoughby

This was a book I had been waiting for, so when I saw it on the review list I grabbed at it quicker than a politician at an expense account. I wasn’t disappointed.

Reynolds’s previous book was a stark contrast to his earlier works in that it had far less dystopian imagery in it. The world he’d built in Blue Remembered Earth was hardly perfect, but it wasn’t the doom and gloom of Resurrection Space and its follow ups, nor was it as full of dire predictions as Century Rain or Pushing Ice.

That may have something to do with less focus on politics and politicians, and more focus on people and their lives.

What also allows this book stand above the norm is the equality of action and narrative given to men and women, and it feels perfectly natural. It’s not role reversal, with the woman saving the day and the men looking helpless, but all characters acting as you would expect them to in normal everyday life. That in itself is an achievement in SF writing – and is a statement that probably reveals more about me and my attitudes than I care to think about.

There was one oddity that stood out and I found irritating. It wasn’t the usual spelling and punctuation errors that have been allowed to pass into books that are traditionally published because publishers don’t want to spend money getting things right – the same things they then point out at major faults in self-published works. The oddity lay in the references to the character Travertine. Ve, vis, viself, ver, verself were used when referring to him (or was it her), instead of he, his, himself, her, herself. There was no reason given for this at any point, and I find it hard to believe it was an accident as it only occurred when referring to Travertine and was irritatingly consistent. The paper form of DRM maybe?

So what of the story.

Reynolds has continued to build upon the world he created in Blue Remembered Earth, but has carried the story into the next generation. Sunday and Geoffrey Akinya are in the background, Geoffrey being dead and Sunday in a mathematics-induced coma, so Sunday’s daughter, Chiku takes up the reins of the family.  She has cloned herself so there are three of her, using a method that will be familiar to those who’ve read House Of Suns, and is now Chiku Red, Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow. Red was sent after their grandmother Eunice who’d set off on a deepspace mission in the previous book. Green was sent on the Holoship Zanzibar to be among the colonists who would reach Crucible, while Yellow was to stay on Earth.

The story is then told from their viewpoints, several chapters at a time devoted to one character, each section segueing neatly into the next, over a period of a hundred years or so.

Aboard Zanzibar, they discover that their information about Crucible has been doctored by Arachne, a self-conscious machine intelligence, though no one knows why. The information that reached Earth showed Mandible, a non-natural feature of the planet. What it didn’t show were the huge rock spaceships in orbit. Who are they and why are they there? Chiku Green must find out. She is aided by Travertine, a man who’s made viself infamous by working on a PCP engine that blew a large hole in Zanzibar, killing thousands of people.

Ve was trying to build an engine to address a major problem the fleet of holoships faced: they have no way of slowing down as they approach Crucible. When the ships were launched it was expected that research aboard the vessels would be able come up with a solution while in space, but tragedy and politics overtook the research and now certain parts of the caravan are determined to live in the holoships and drift through space. And impose that on others.

Back on Earth, Chiku Yellow is attempting to send information to Chiku Green, having taken information for the near-dead body of Chiku Red who had been rescued by the Merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations. She journeys to Venus, Mars and the Moon to acquire the information she needs about Arachne and comes close to being killed several times.

Throughout the book, Chiku Yellow (and Green and Red) has to contend with the version of Arachne that controls the Mechanism, a set of programs and machines that control the surveilled worlds, a version that believes she will be destroyed if humanity discovers her existence. The version of herself that Arachne has sent to Crucible is also trying to survive, while Chiku Green fights against her.

The stories are woven together well and there isn’t a wasted word anywhere.

For SF fans, the possibilities and imagination that has gone into the book will remind them of the heady days of Asimov and Clarke, of an age where imagination and people were more important in telling the story of humanity and guessing about its future. Reynolds doesn’t concentrate on the science at the expense of the story or the people, but blends into a complex narrative that left me staying up into the night reading.

I look forward to the next installment of the fortunes of the Akinya family.

p.s. There are talking Elephants in it.