THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

The Medusa ChroniclesI fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.

Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysCentury RainPushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.

Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!

I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.

Exhibit A.
A prologue which serves no purpose except being a painting-by-numbers literary device. Our protagonist used to play with a golden robot toy. Coincidentally, later in his life, our protagonist becomes a golden robot. What a pretty circle!

Exhibit B.
Dialogue that seems lifted from 70s pulp SF. An homage to Clarke, I’m sure.

“He means,” Embleton said dryly, “guests are even more difficult to handle than a bomb on a porthole.”
“I’d say it’s possible, sir.”
Webster grinned. “It’s worth a try, damn it.”
Embleton nodded sharply. “Lieutenant Moss, it’s your baby. Equip this toy to get that leech of my window.”
Moss nodded. “Give me five minutes, sir. Conseil! Follow me…”

It even has brackets in direct speech!

“You understand us now, at least. You gave us home. You declared us Legal Persons (Non-human). How will you treat these fellows?”

Exhibit C.
Inconsistencies too numerous to list: both characters behaving unbelievably, as unbelievable plot stuff.

A team of doctors performs highly experimental, advanced surgery (see C2). One doctor makes a remark about the case being interesting. The senior doctor of the team assaults him physically because of this, and gets approval of the other staff.

The team had been highly motivated. They weren’t just saving a life; they were doing so using the latest techniques and technologies. Indeed, the doctors said, this case was driving the development of new techniques altogether. Sometimes they were over-keen. One younger doctor had bragged in the canteen, “You know, this must be the most interesting trauma case since they gave up fighting wars…” Doctor Bignall punched the man in the mouth. If he hadn’t, Hope Dhone would have.

Humans develop highly advanced neurological surgery, wherein a brain and a spinal chord are fully integrated with a robotic body. Individual nerves are tied to individual artificial sensors, even upgrading this cybernetic human’s senses to extreme heights. Yet humans can’t manage to fabricate a passable prosthetic face. I guess Baxter & Reynolds have never visited Madame Tussauds.

A new quantum technique is used as a weapon. The technique is “non-local”. Yet it does require the weapon to be in the neighborhood of the target. “Just proximity, I suppose.”

There’s actually too much gold for the cynical critic in my notes, I could go on and on with exhibits. Maybe a final one… What had me eye-rolling was the attempt to give the AI subplot some literary legitimacy by quoting Milton’s quote in Frankenstein. Mary Shelley managed to make the accusing soliloquy of the monster a piece of pure existential poetry, full of harrowing emotion. Baxter & Reynolds come up with this, when the ringleader of revolting AIs addresses his former mentor:

Adam [yes, Adam] ignored that. “You created us. In your greed you made us too strong, too vital – and you, Falcon, allowed us to keep our minds, where your fellows would have destroyed us. That is your triumph and your tragedy, Falcon. The consequences are certainly not our fault. Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?
“Milton”, Jane called from the back of the room.
Falcon said, “It was also the epigraph to Frankenstein, and maybe that’s more appropriate.”
Adam smiled. “Now you pay the price.”

Afterwards, nothing new is added to the philosophical debate that Shelley already outlined in 1818.

One would think a book written by “two of our greatest science fiction writers” would benefit from the double scrutiny of both minds – and both writers’ teams of editors and beta-readers tweaking the manuscript to avoid stuff like the above. One would think you’d end up with a double dose of imaginative speculative delight. 1 + 1 is not 3 in this case. It isn’t a two either. It’s a plain zero: unsubstantial, empty, vapid.

My advice to Reynolds would be: go back to working as an astrophysicist, and stop publishing a book every year… 15 novels since 2000, excluding short fiction and novellas? Quantity, quality, yada  yada yada.

I wanted quit The Medusa Chronicles after 100 pages, but I’m glad I didn’t and pushed trough, as the finale is actually quite alright. The very end however does involve lots of quantum physical mumbo jumbo magic: the ultimate veneer of seriousness in so called Hard SF. The finale doesn’t redeem this turd: 60 alright pages in a book of 409 is not the ratio I’m looking for.

Later this year, Reynolds solo will publish yet another new stand alone book. Its title is Revenger. I don’t think I’ll even start it.


7 responses to “THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

  1. *OUCH*
    I was quite excited about this book, since it teamed up an author I like and one I’ve been curious about for some time now, and it seemed like a good chance of… well, catching two birds with a stone. But now my enthusiasm has cooled a little. Well, more than a little, to be honest.
    Thanks for sharing – and congratulations for holding up until the end! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I’ll pass on other Baxter btw.


  3. House of Suns is on my list – soon, I hope… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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