Poseidon’s Wake | Alastair Reynolds | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 608p | Review copy | Buy the book
Crucible, a planet distant from Earth, is now a colony for both humans and a dynasty of intelligent elephants. They are watched from orbit by an unknowable artefact, Mandala, which waits surrounded by the debris from its inexplicable, monstrous attack on a massive transportation vessel decades before. Ndege Akinya, an old woman, is imprisoned within her own home on Crucible, held responsible, at least in part, for this ‘Mandala event’. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this would mean the end of Akinya influence on mankind’s fate among the stars. But then Gliese 163, a far off system, begins to transmit, in Swahili, ‘Send Ndege’. Ndege is too old and frail to go on a journey that would take so many years. Instead, Ndege’s brother Mposi and her daughter Goma with her wife Ru, a carer of the remarkable Tantor elephants, embark on the vessel Travertine.
But they are not alone. Another member of the Akinya family, Kanu, has been told of the message by an AI ‘friend’ called Swift. Kanu, his one-time wife Nissa, and Swift set off from Mars for Gliese 163. Neither expedition has any idea what to expect but both are certain that their destination many hold the answer to the mystery of the Mandala and the Watchkeepers whose presence menaces the Earth’s solar system just as it does Crucible.
This is just the very beginning. Alastair Reynolds launches these two ships into a distant, different place, a star system that holds many surprises, many of them deeply personal to the Akinya family. But it’s not just about the destination. The journey is a difficult one, highlighting the fear that worries the passengers and crew. Since the Mandala event, conspiracy theories have flourished, along with cults and terrorism. All of these are to be found on the vessels. Arrival is not a certainty for everyone. And then there’s the challenge of what they face when they finally get there.
Poseidon’s Wake is the third novel in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy, a set of books which are linked by the Akinya family but cover great swathes of time and space. This novel is as much a standalone as the preceding two but I think that the books really do deserve to be read in sequence. If you’ve read all three then you will know about the overwhelmingly powerful force of Eunice in the lives of her family and descendants. She’s important here, too. And then there are her elephants. These wonderful animals have formed a significant and especially enjoyable thread through the novels and that continues in Poseidon’s Wake, more than ever. Kanu was once a merman and he is a reminder of this universe’s predilection for transforming humans, in lots of cases to live for many extra decades, even centuries, but most memorably in the way that many took to living in the sea. While this book removes us from the ocean world and into space, we’re still rewarded with glimpses – it’s good to see Arethusa again – and the title of the novel (and trilogy) hints at its continued significance and meaning.
This richly layered novel is full of themes and an important one here is the suspicion between AIs and humans. AI Swift is an intriguing member of Kanu’s crew and his kind forms a link between human beings and the mysterious builders of the Mandala and the Watchkeepers. Intelligent life has expanded way beyond a head, two legs and two arms and it’s not just the elephants who prove this.
I have enjoyed all three books very much indeed – I think that Alastair Reynolds has created an extraordinary universe and I love how he moves it on with each novel. There is something very organic about the growth of these books. Everything is linked in such clever, imaginative and meandering ways. Man’s responsibility for the environment and the crucial importance of his response to the strangeness beyond his world are key to the way that I view the trilogy and that continues in Poseidon’s Wake. This means that the book appeals to my heart as well as my head.
The story itself is a thoroughly enjoyable one. It’s a very substantial book but it moves along at a pace. I couldn’t wait to find out what what would happen next while all the time I was entertained by a succession of fascinating characters. These are intriguing people, no longer defined by gender or sexuality, but all with a good tale to tell.
I realise that I’m not able to tell you the best bits about this fantastic, enormously rewarding book because that would be giving the game away and you really need to discover it for yourself – the second half of the novel comprises one jaw-dropping moment after another, building up to a marvellous cimax. This book gives me all that I want from science fiction – there are wonders and mysteries, booby-trapped planets, alien technology, awe-inspiring panoramas, space and spaceships – and elephants! And manipulating its way through the heart of it is surely one of the universe’s most dysfunctional, astonishing families, the Akinya.
Having completed the trilogy I now want to return to its beginning and re-read. Alastair Reynolds is one of my very favourite authors, every book is a much-anticipated event, and with Poseidon’s Wake he shows yet again why that is. I loved every single page.