Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds (book review)

‘Poseidon’s Wake’ is billed as part of an informal trilogy. True, it is the third part of a sequence set in the same future with strong connections between each volume. In the past, these would have been called sequels but, particularly because of the film industry, that term is looked on with scepticism, often meaning ‘more of the same but not quite as good’. Yes, there are exceptions.


I have also heard some writers, okay one in particular, erroneously stating that Northern Hemisphere white male authors never write about ethnic minorities. British ones do! An excellent example is here in Alastair Reynolds’ books about the Akinya family. It is absolutely clear from the first, ‘Blue Remembered Earth’, that the majority of the characters are of African origin. Here, the family has accrued wealth from renewable energy and can almost do whatever it wants. This novel takes the main characters on a quest following clues left behind by Eunice, the matriarch of the family. Geoffrey is a reluctant participant, being far more interested in elephants than travelling to Mars.

In a world where rejuvenation has extended life spans to near immortality, as long as accidents don’t get you, the centuries have passed in the lives of the characters before the start of ‘On The Steel Breeze’. Mars is a no-go area for organic forms due to the evolution of machine intelligences and hollowed out asteroids are the spaceships taking colonists to a distant planet, light years from Earth. Technology has allowed Chiku Akinya (Eunice’s descendant) to clone herself and up-load her personality into each of her three selves. One stays on Earth, one chases Eunice’s departed ship and one travels with the colonists. They each have their own lives but can transmit memories to each other. What no-one realises at the time is that a simulacrum of Eunice is aboard one of the colony ships and with her are Tantors, elephants that have advanced intelligence.

Such is Reynolds skill that in this third volume, ‘Poseidon’s Wake’, that he doesn’t have to tell us everything that has gone on between books. With a minimum of words and fuss, we know that the asteroid ship that was known as Zanzibar has been destroyed and that Ndege Akinya, daughter to Chiku Green, is held responsible since she was trying to understand the alien artefact known as the Mandala at the time. Now a message has been received from a distant star saying ‘Send Ndege’. This is universe where the restrictions of light speed have not been ignored. There are no warp engines or wormholes. It will take many years to travel to the source of the signal but the colonists on Crucible decide it is a project worth pursuing…well most of them. There is a sect known as Second Chance who opposes anything that advances the sentience of animals. This includes the Tantors. They are an abomination.

This is not Ndege’s story. It belongs partly to Goma, her daughter, and partly to Kanu, the son of Chiku Yellow. He had chosen to become an adapted human and join the community on the sea. He had worked with construction machines until the AIs were disabled. At the start of this novel, he is an ambassador on Mars representing the United Aquatic Nations. By consensus, no evolved machine is allowed to leave Mars but, when the machines rebuild Kanu after an accident, he loses his position and the trust of the authorities. Though they can find no evidence, they cannot be sure that he doesn’t carry a taint of machine intelligence in his body.

The signal that started Goma on her way to the Gliese system has also been intercepted by the machines of Mars. By subterfuge, they send Kanu to investigate it. They place him in a position where he has no choice.

When the colonists arrived at Crucible in ‘On The Steel Breeze’, they discovered huge machine intelligences they called the Watchkeepers surrounding the planet. By negotiation, Chiku Green, the construct that was Eunice and the Tantor, Dakota, had gone with them when they abandoned the planet to humans. In ‘Poseidon’s Wake’, we find out what happened to them and what exactly Ndege did when she activated the Mandala on Crucible. Some mysteries are solved, others appear. This is a big book in several senses of the word. The text is long and there are a huge cast of characters to keep tabs on. The plot is complex but the book is very readable with surprises at every turn. There are some that complain that books this thick should be edited down but it would be difficult to see where this could be reduced without losing the richness of description and characterisation. It would also lose some of the imaginative depths if this was attempted.

It doesn’t matter of you haven’t read the first two books but to do so first will add to the appreciation of the skill of this writer. As winter approaches, you could do worse than curling up with this book and allowing Reynolds to transport you to a complex and dangerous future full of strange wonders.

Pauline Morgan

September 2015

(pub: Gollancz. 724 page hardback. Price: £18.99(UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-09049. eBook £ 9.99 (UK). Audio Download: £25.00 (UK))

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