As men and women explore space and settle new worlds, increasingly knotted to technology, they put at risk everything that is, or has been, beautiful about the Earth and life on it – free thought, independent purpose, animals and nature, healthy breathable skies and even family ties. In On the Steel Breeze, the distant sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, these themes are explored even further and taken to new places as humanity confronts a time of great crisis.
I’m delighted to report that elephants make a return in the new novel and they are given a much more important role in our future.
In On the Steel Breeze, we follow the life stories of three women, descendants of the remarkable and celebrated Eunice Akinya and her daughter Sunday, so well known to us from the previous novel. All is not that straightforward, though, because these three women each share the same name, Chiku, and their ties are unusual and profound. But the journeys they lead are each very different and randomly allotted. While one stays on Earth and its neighbouring planets, apparently for safety, another journeys with a great caravan of holoships to settle a new planet, Crucible, after decades of travel. Her ship is called Zanzibar, continuing the series’ African theme. The third is on a search and she has the most dangerous of all the three tasks.
Everyone is on the move. Millions and millions of people are leaving the solar system for other worlds on asteroids transformed into generation ships. Others on Earth are evolving into something else, whether because of living in the seas or in zero gravity. Commutes between continents and the Moon are made simple by the Mechanism which watches over all life, even entering human biology. Language and distance are no longer a barrier. The novel itself has a motion about it, caused by its structure which moves between the different stories set light years apart.
The structure works very successfully for several reasons, not least because it allows Alastair Reynolds to bring together and create in fantastic detail portraits of life on Earth and on these incredible asteroid vessels so far apart. There are no constraints to the vision and because of the great distances there’s a freedom in moving between time periods. It is all extremely fluid and flexible but, above all, these worlds are so fascinating to behold! This is a novel of exploration.
We revisit places and characters from Blue Remembered Earth. For me, this meant a welcome return to the Merfolk of the United Acquatic Nations as well as sinister machine-controlled Mars. But added to these are the new worlds, especially Crucible and the holoships, and thrilling episodes on other planets and environments. On the Steel Breeze might be visionary but it’s also a thoroughly exciting adventure, with edge-of-seat scenes scattered throughout the book. Parts of it are breathtaking, not just for the splendour of the backdrop.
There are lots of themes explored here, not least the transformation of humankind and the repercussions of this for life of every other kind, as well as families, relationships and tradition. There is the responsibility that humanity has for new worlds and aggravating that is the reality that there is other alien life out there which we have a very real need to try and understand. And then there’s the Mechanism. Its control was a heavy shadow in Blue Remembered Earth. It’s now become even more powerful and, what is far more dangerous, restless.
I’m a big fan of Alastair Reynolds’ writing but I think he has achieved something very special with On the Steel Breeze. Its female characters are so strong and complex and they are supported and surrounded by a host of intriguing characters and relationships, many of whom have their own secrets and stories to tell. Emotions have their place in this novel, just as awe-inspiring wonders do. I enjoyed Blue Remembered Earth very much but On the Steel Breeze exceeds it. It would work well as a stand alone novel but I think you’d benefit from understanding a little more Eunice and Sunday, not to mention the African background and those astonishing elephants.
The natural world is fighting back in On the Steel Breeze, with a little help from some, and it makes for an extraordinary, rich journey. There is so much to On the Steel Breeze, so many memorable moments and characters, the fascination of the science mixing so well with the emotion of the human stories, that I urge you to immerse yourself in it.