BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH
By Alastair Reynolds
Ace, $26.95 (hc)
Reynolds has made his reputation with big, action packed novels in the “New Space Opera” mode. Here he takes a move in another direction.
This new novel’s action is confined entirely to the Solar System, and is set in a future society where violence is almost unheard of—in fact, almost impossible, because of pervasive monitoring of every human action. The major characters are all members of a single family, the Akinyas. They are among the richest and most powerful people in this new world, where not only the Moon and Mars have human settlements, but significant mining takes place on the outer moons and asteroids.
The focus is on family dynamics, and the action is precipitated by the death of the matriarch of the family, Eunice, the grandmother of all the major characters. There are essentially two factions within the family: two older brothers who have taken central roles in the family business, and a brother and sister who have elected to lead more independent lives: Geoffrey, studying the dynamics of an elephant herd near their family home in Africa, and Sunday, as an artist on the Moon.
The worlds they inhabit are very different from ours, and not just because of easy space travel. Europe and North America have been knocked from the pedestal of economic and political dominance, in part by resource depletion, in part by the aftermath of global climate change. Africa, with plentiful solar energy, is now a center of power. But the colonies on the Moon and Mars, and underseas on Earth itself, are also vital centers. And with pervasive electronic connections between all parts of the human world, everyone has nearly instant access to everyone else.
Eunice’s death at first seems to consolidate the grasp on power of Hector and Lucas, the two cousins who have taken an interest in the Akinya business empire. But they soon call Geoffrey in for a favor. It seems Eunice has left something—they aren’t sure what—in a safe deposit box on the Moon. Someone needs to retrieve it—preferably someone who won’t attract attention from competitors. Geoffrey fits the bill—and the cousins are willing to fund his elephant research for several years to come if he’ll do the job. He agrees, partly because it’ll give him an opportunity to visit Sunday, whom he hasn’t seen in the flesh for years. (Electronic avatars are used by almost everyone for business they can’t conduct in person.)
Arriving on the Moon, Geoffrey opens the box to discover—the glove of a space suit. That turns out to be the first clue in a hunt that takes him to Mars—and beyond, in an adventure far more complex than he’d thought was possible. Family secrets are thick on the ground, as is a scientific payoff that is well worth the long, sometimes slow, buildup.
Reynolds has pulled off a tour de force, both in keeping the action within the Solar System and in rejecting violence as a major plot engine. (There are a couple of points where the action is considerably less tranquil, but it’s a far cry from the interstellar combat that’s been one of his hallmarks.) The characters are complex, as are the societies they inhabit, and the backgrounds of three planets, plus various habitats in space, are convincingly drawn.
This may, in fact, be Reynolds’ best to date—no mean feat considering the high quality of his previous work. Recommended.
CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
Here’s a new novel in Bujold’s familiar future history, although it’s one where her iconic hero Miles Vorkosigan plays a supporting role at best. Instead, the focus is on Ivan Vorpatril, his somewhat less adventurous cousin.
While there is enough intrigue and action to give the book forward momentum, for much of its length, the focus is on what’s probably best described as a comedy of manners. This is accomplished in a time-honored fashion, by introducing an alien viewpoint: in this case, two young women from Jackson’s Whole, a world organized on very different principles from Ivan’s homeworld Barrayar—essentially, a libertarian free-market society. In his capacity as aide to an admiral, Ivan is stationed on a colonial world, when his old friend Byerly Vorrutyer asks him for help in keeping an eye on a young woman from off planet. Ivan goes about the assignment in a somewhat simple-minded fashion, and is surprised when the subject of the surveillance stuns him and ties him up.
Things progress from that point; Ivan learns that the young woman, Tej, is the daughter of a powerful family on her home world, and has fled in the wake of a hostile takeover—one involving deadly force. She and her companion Rish, a genetically engineered dancer with blue skin, have dodged several attempts to take them hostage, but are now at the end of their funds and strategies. With Byerly’s help, Ivan gets them safely out of danger for the moment by smuggling them into his own apartment. But his mission will be up in a couple of days, and he has no plans for keeping them safe afterward. He gets Tej to an imperial security officer, who debriefs her, and figures he’s done his duty.
Then the pursuit catches up with them again, in the form of local officers put on Tej’s track by agents of the group that’s attacked her family. As a last resort, Byerly comes up with a foolproof strategy: if Ivan marries Tej, she’ll have diplomatic immunity long enough to get her to safety, at which point the two can divorce and all’s well that ends well. Convinced by the logic, Ivan goes through a traditional, and very quick, Barrayaran ceremony and the two are officially wed. They make their escape, and the heat would appear to be off—for the moment. Wrong again.
Bujold takes the plot through one twist after another, with the couple (plus Rish and Byerly) returning to Barrayar, where Ivan thinks the divorce will be a piece of cake, since his uncle is a provincial judge with the power to annul the wedding with a sweep of his hand. But first, Tej has to meet Ivan’s very-well-connected family, plus various figures in the power elite of the planet. Rish and Byerly start dating, spending very late hours at various high and low dives around the capital city. And, since they really are officially married, Ivan and Tej start having sex. It’s only then that they find out the divorce isn’t going to be so easy after all. . . .
As if these complications aren’t enough, the rest of Tej’s family shows up, with plans of their own that don’t necessarily involve Tej staying married. And, of course, their enemies aren’t far behind. Bujold builds one plot surprise upon another, with results that ought to amply satisfy action-oriented readers.
But that’s just the surface of the book—which is, as noted, very much a comedy of manners. We learn a good deal about Barrayaran society, especially the family life of its upper crust, all of it presented with an amused smile and the occasional side glance at our own customs. With Tej as the occasionally bewildered outsider and Ivan as the somewhat stodgy local alternating viewpoints, the interplay of characters is refreshing—with the somewhat more unconventional Byerly and Rish to add still another perspective.
This one should keep Bujold’s fans well entertained while they await the next Miles Vorkosigan adventure—which, judging by the conclusion of Cryoburn, the previous book in the series, will take him into completely new territory.
By Rob Reid
Del Rey, $25.00 (hc)
In this first novel, Nick Carter, a music industry lawyer, gets involved in the biggest intellectual property case ever.
Nick holds one of the lower slots in the hierarchy of a huge New York law firm that specializes in the protection of the music industry’s hold over popular songs. And as the novel begins, he’s become aware that he’s on the verge of an evaluation by his superiors, the kind that will determine whether he has any chance of making partner. Unfortunately, he’s weak in the kind of original thinking that catapults an apprentice into a partnership—which means he’s likely to be looking for a job if he doesn’t come through.
But luck is on his side, in the form of a pair of humanoid aliens, Carly and Frampton, who have come to his office looking for a way out of a major problem. It turns out that, starting in the 1970s, the aliens discovered human music—the one art at which our species surpasses all other sentient beings. The moment of that discovery—when the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” penetrated the aliens’ consciousness—changed extraterrestrial society forever. The problem is, they then pirated every single instance of human music they could find.
As a result, they now owe unfathomably huge royalties, plus penalty payments for the piracy, to every human being on earth. And, being highly evolved moral beings, they need to figure out a way to pay up without bankrupting the entire galaxy. They’ve come to Nick because he has the same name as one of the Backstreet Boys. Despite being highly evolved, the aliens are total celebrity worshippers, and they think Nick’s supposed status will help their case.
Nick is at first extremely skeptical, but they quickly flash some advanced tech that convinces him they’re for real. The enormous amounts at stake, he realizes, may be just the ticket to get him past the partnership hurdle. Now all he has to do is sell it to his boss, an incredibly predatory senior partner named Judy. She’s asked him to come up with a way to woo an important senator who’s the firm’s main governmental connection. The senator has his own case of celebrity worship—he can usually be paid off with minor favors such as having him play a tambourine track in the studio for one of his idols’ records. Nick figures he can assure his promotion by getting the senator involved in finding a fix for the aliens’ piracy problem.
Of course, the problem’s way too complex for that. Nick gets an unexpected call from someone named Paulie Stardust demanding his presence at a trendy downtown restaurant. He follows directions to the place, where he is surprised to find his obnoxious cousin Pugwash, a wealthy, smug trend-chaser who considers himself an intellectual. Also there is a large parrot, who turns out to be Paulie—an alien who’s got his own solution to the piracy problem. And unlike most of the aliens, he’s not especially morally advanced.
That sets off a complicated plot in which Nick finds himself zipping around the universe through fast-moving wormholes, visiting advanced societies that nonetheless have recognizable echoes of our own—and yes, he does eventually save the Earth from the cosmic villains. Reid has a lot of fun with the music-obsessed aliens, whose taste runs to the dregs of seventies pop, including bands many of us have gladly forgotten. He also riffs amusingly on several of the tropes of SF, and writes some of the cleverest footnotes since Jack Vance.
A great one to pick up if you’re in the mood for a giggle; music trivia experts especially will have a ball with it.
The Search for Our Planet’s Twin
By Michael D. Lemonick
Walker, $26.00 (hc)
The discovery of planets beyond our Solar System, once thought all but impossible, is now a thriving scientific enterprise. Here’s a look at some of the scientists who carry out the search.
Before planets of other stars had been detected, astronomers were fairly sure they existed, partially on the assumption that our own Solar System is typical of others—using the Copernican postulate that Earth and its environs are in no way special. But finding those planets entailed precise measurements of the wobble caused by a body in orbit around a star, or the dimming of light as it passed between the star and the observer. Attempts were made as far back as the 1960s, notably by Peter van de Kamp of Swarthmore, who in 1963 claimed to have found a planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. Despite initial excitement, those who tried to duplicate his findings eventually proved him wrong. He’d misread the signals.
It took until 1995 for Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz to make the first confirmed discovery, a body half the size of Jupiter orbiting the star 51 Pegasi every four days. This “hot Jupiter” overturned existing theories of planet formation, proving once and for all that our Solar System isn’t necessarily representative of the galactic norm. And when Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler of San Francisco State University found two more planets in observations they had been recording for six years, the game was on.
New tools, notably space telescopes, made the task easier; so did the arrival on the scene of a generation of astronomers whose imagination was fired by this grand new enterprise. Lemonick gives profiles of a number of these “exoplaneteers”: Canadians Dave Charbonneau and Sara Saeger, who learned their trade at Harvard; and Debra Fischer and Natalie Batalha of the University of California. Unlike earlier eras of astronomy, the hunt for new planets is very much open to both sexes.
Another major player in the planet-hunting game is Bill Borucki, the driving force behind the Kepler space telescope, which has produced over a thousand candidate planets. And the chase is now finding planets close in size to Earth itself. That becomes more interesting, because it makes it more likely that some of them are Earth-like in other ways—possibly including the existence of life. That would, of course, be the jackpot.
Whether such planets exist remains to be seen—but Lemonick makes it clear that the exoplaneteers are busily working to find ways to detect them. Most of the professionals try hard not to appear too enthusiastic about the possibility—as noted at several points in the book, an observer should be his own harshest critic. As much as they’d like to be the one who makes that breakthrough, nobody wants to repeat van de Kamp’s mistake.
A good look at one of the most exciting areas of astronomy, and at the new breed of astronomers who’re adding to the inventory of new worlds.
Copyright © 2013 Peter Heck