Friday, July 21, 2017

More about Medusa – a sequel to Clarke’s classic

Review of: The Medusa Chronicles
Authors: Stephen Baxter & Alistair Reynolds
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

One life isn’t enough for Arthur C. Clarke’s Jovian astronaut Howard Falcon. Clarke introduced readers to Falcon in his 1971 Nebula Award-winning novella, A Meeting with Medusa. Now, Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds take Falcon’s adventures to the end of the world (and beyond) in their sequel to Clarke’s story, The Medusa Chronicles.

The story opens with an exploration of the snowy winter landscape of Howard’s boyhood home, aided by the toy robot he names “Adam.” The passage overhead of a dirigible ignites Howard’s passion for airships. The child Howard can’t realize that his passion will one day result in a nearly-fatal accident aboard an experimental airship that leaves much of his injured body replaced by prosthetics, making him the first cyborg. Or that his altered physical state will make him the choice to explore worlds too dangerous for humans – and the perfect intermediary between humans and machines.

While making his first exploration – a descent on yet another airship into the gas seas of Jupiter, Falcon encounters the jellyfish-like sentient beings he terms “medusa,” as depicted in Clarke’s story. Baxter and Reynolds expand on that meeting to send Falcon to further adventures in settings as diverse as the undersea ecology of Earth, the torrid plains of Mercury, and the rocky  worldlets of the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

With his near-immortal, less than half-human body, centuries slip past like days as Falcon becomes increasingly estranged from the human side of his nature.

One of the tasks he takes up, with some reluctance, is to aid in the development of near-sentient robots, able to mine the mineral-rich worlds of the solar system’s outer reaches far beyond direct control by human beings. Falcon privately names the prototype of these autonomous robots “Adam,” after his childhood toy. When an accident destroys several robots working under Adam’s direction, the shock triggers full consciousness (and a conscience) in the distraught robot.

Falcon is sent to stop any further steps toward machine consciousness, but faced again with sentience in an unlikely race of beings, he abets the escape of the robots from human control. It’s a decision he feels is the right one, but which will lead ultimately to centuries of war between machines and humans. And the human beings aren’t getting the best of things.

The Medusa Chronicles touch on an array of themes dear to science fiction: the rise (and fear of) artificial intelligence, ecological disasters, the rise of xenophobic, totalitarian governments in response to war and economic stress, and the effects of drastically-increased life expectancies.

Despite the timeliness of the themes, and Baxter’s and Reynolds’ thrilling descriptions of how humans may manage to settle many of the planets and moons of the solar system, a saga as huge as The Medusa Chronicles almost inevitably suffers from a frequently-sagging middle. Centuries can pass with little apparent progress, leaving this reader too many points at which to wonder how Falcon’s pension from the Royal Navy he once served in manages to stretch over the lifespan of an officer entering his ninth century by the book’s end.

A deus ex machina-like event, fascinating though it is, also detracts from the story’s power. The Medusa Chronicles remain, however, a thoughtful appraisal of the heights to which humanity may ascend – and the depths to which it can descend.

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