The Medusa Chronicles | Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds | 2016, Pb 2017 | Gollancz | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
Captain Howard Falcon should never have survived when his dirigible, Queen Elizabeth IV, crashed to Earth in the 2080s. Something of an experiment, Falcon was saved by cyborg surgery that turned him into something other than a man, something other than a robot. It also turned him into a curiosity, a position that was compounded when, in the 2090s, Falcon sailed into the upper gaseous clouds of Jupiter on the Kon-Tiki, a balloon craft, where he observed swimming great leviathans, the ‘medusae’, preyed upon by ‘mantas’. Falcon was able to communicate with these enormous beasts and proclaimed them peaceful.
This is in Falcon’s past. Now the centuries are passing by. Falcon is continually changing, being ‘upgraded’ as his systems, organic and otherwise, degenerate. Other humans are able to defy the passing of time through genetic surgery, giving Falcon the chance to achieve friendships that last for many, many years, but for Falcon it is very different. He is transformed. And he now has a new role.
Falcon more than anyone has observed and encouraged the development of sentient AIs and many years later he is regarded as a mentor of the first self-aware robot, the aptly named Adam. Adam and others like him labour deep in space for their human masters but, when something goes wrong and Adam is forced by his programming to sacrifice many of his kind for the sake of human industry, Adam is unable to reconcile himself with the cost of his decision. He instructs other robots to down tools, the cost to humanity is crippling. Falcon is sent to negotiate, to develop this relationship between two not-quite humans on the surface of an alien world. But Adam’s journey to fulfilment and independence for himself and his kind will have such an impact on the whole of the human race that it is unlikely it will be able to survive. No longer trusting Falcon, more machine than man, as the centuries pass, humans need him more than ever – there is nowhere he can hide.
If I had to name one book that I was looking forward to more than any other in 2016, it would be The Medusa Chronicles. My appreciation of its two authors, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, knows no bounds and just the idea of the two of them working together on a novel was enough to make me jump about. The fact that the book also develops a short story by Arthur C. Clarke was the icing on the cake – and what a cake it turned out to be.
With no hesitation at all, I can declare The Medusa Chronicles my favourite novel of 2016 so far. If I were to compile a checklist of everything I wanted from a work of science fiction, then this would tick every box and add some I hadn’t thought of. I firmly believe that you need to read this wonderful novel yourself to discover all of its many wonders and surprises but here are a few reasons why I love it so much and urge you to read it.
Falcon is a tremendous character. Not quite human but more than a human. He changes increasingly over the novel, becoming ever more adapted to life in space and less suited to Earth. At times a robot in appearance, at other times almost a giant metallic insect, but always the character and personality of Falcon remains. He keeps his love of the simple pleasures. He creates gardens, a place to remember people now dead, he can spend decades watching a plant grow. He flies in balloons and dirigibles (reminding me so wonderfully of the airships in Baxter’s other collaboration The Long Earth). He can relate to alien beasts, discovered so fantastically in our own solar system in Jupiter’s heavens. His explorations there are magical moments, very painful at times, beautifully described.
Falcon’s relationship with Adam is utterly fascinating. Adam becomes increasingly complicated, moving towards and then away from the term ‘father’. Learning guile, deception, ruthless in his schemes and yet still retaining affection for the race that created him and used him. The plans of the robots are mind boggling in their scale and ambition and effect.
There are wonders to be found here. We are taken on many diversions, spending time away on other worlds, sometimes on Earth, even under the seas. The authors’ love for nature shines through here, not least in Jupiter. I defy you to read these scenes and not have them stay with you. There are so many memorable moments.
The Medusa Chronicles is mesmerising, engrossing and beautifully written, its characters and dialogue imbued with wit and humanity, even after a great deal of time has passed and humans aren’t what they were. Even then, Falcon is a reminder of the past and many of them do listen.
I couldn’t tell you which author wrote which bits and that’s all to the good. It’s seamless but it certainly contains all that I love in the writing and imagination and vision of both Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds. Full justice has been done to Clarke and his original short story and I can only hope for more. My only greedy complaint is that I wish the book were longer. What there is, though, is wondrous and perfect.
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth
The Long War
The Long Mars
The Long Utopia
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)