Thursday, June 8, 2017
Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles, a novel-length sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa." It really does feel a lot like reading Arthur C. Clarke but with a few modernizations, including the presence of a few actual women (granted, most of them don't have particularly major parts, but there is at least one prominent alien gendered as female and she's not even sexy to human males, so that's something).
Clarke is one of my all time favorites, and my favorite of the so-called Big Three ahead of Asimov and Heinlein. Reading Clarke as a teenager, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, is what got me fully hooked on science fiction literature (as opposed to science fiction movies and TV, which I had been enjoying as long as I can remember). In fact, Clarke's mind-expanding Big Ideas also probably helped set me on the path to becoming a philosopher. Thinking about human origins and destinies, the vastness of time and space, and the fathomless mysteries of the universe is what continues to draw me to both science fiction and philosophy. (It also motivates this blog!).
Since Clarke took his own journey through the Star Gate in 2008, he's not producing anything new (at least that we know of - maybe he's working as a Star Child somewhere).
So what's a Clarke fan filled with nostalgia to do? Here's where Baxter and Reynolds come in! They wrote a novel as as sequel to Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa," in which Howard Falcon descends into the atmosphere of Jupiter and discovers life in the form of giant, two-kilometer-wide creatures he calls medusae. The story ends with a tantalizing line that the main character, half-human and half-machine, lived on for centuries. The Medusa Chronicles is that story. (It was also cool to re-read Clarke's novella and to read the sequel soon after the recent real life photos of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft).
I don't want to spoil the story, but it involves a few returns to Jupiter as well as trips to Mercury, Saturn, the Oort Cloud, and more. Falcon becomes something like the Forest Gump of the next millennium of the history of the solar system, present at or responsible for almost every major historical event. As the original story hints at, there's a conflict between the humans and machines and Falcon is in a unique place with regard to this history.
I could say more about the human-machine conflict and whether all the hype, coming even from the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, about whether AIs will want to kill us is justified (I say not). But saying much more about that in this review might involve unforgivable spoilers.
Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was
So instead I want to talk about nostalgia. What's going on with books like this that try to feed into nostalgia? Does it work? What's the point? Shouldn't I just read Clarke again?
Like I mentioned at the beginning, one great thing about this is that it captures some of the good stuff about Clarke (the Big Ideas) without some of his draw backs (like the fact that women barely exist in most of his work). This is somewhat like a recent all women anthology of Lovecraft-inspired stories, She Walks in Shadows, that tries to take some of Lovecraft's cool ideas without the racism and misogyny.
But maybe we'd be better off creating new stuff. I think this is what much of Baxter's work has done. He's probably one of the more Clarkean SF authors working today. He even collaborated with Clarke on a series of books.
Maybe there's a cash-in element. As in Hollywood, sequels and remakes are all the rage because people like what's familiar, or at least it's easier to market what's familiar. Sure, that explains things like the 2017 Baywatch movie (I mean, who even wanted such an abomination?), but big Clarke fans are probably already reading Baxter and Reynolds or authors like them. It's kind of a niche market.
Is it a way to honor Clarke's memory? A way to continue the story?
Whatever it is, I can say I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles. It didn't feel exactly like Clarke. But it was in a similar vein. On that count it's way better than those latter day Dune books, which are sort of pulpy, dumbed-down versions of the original sometimes called "McDune" (not that I haven't enjoyed some of them just to spend more time in the Dune universe).
Does nostalgia work? Can you ever re-capture the past? Is it a good idea to do so? Like I've said with regard to nostalgia-fests like Stranger Things, you have to use nostalgia responsibly. For one thing, it's never going to reproduce the original. I'll never again feel exactly like I did when I was 14 or 15 and read Clarke for the first time.
The danger of nostalgia is that it can encourage us to rewrite the past to misremember it. (Case in point: making America great again? For who? When?) As much as I love Clarke, when I do read him again I notice that some of his dialogue and exposition is honestly not that great. And his stories mostly take place in some alternative universe where women make up about 2% of the population.
It's complicated to love something but also admit that it has serious problems. And the danger of nostalgia is that it can encourage a willful amnesia in which your love for a thing must be all or nothing (one might say this is a problem of our contemporary political culture as well). But one of the things Clarke taught me (a lesson I'm honestly not sure Baxter and Reynolds have replicated as well as they could have) is that everything is more complicated, more mysterious than you think it is. Nostalgia can be wonderful in moderation, but it can also flatten the layers of the universe into a single rosy-hued escapism that robs you of your access to the very sorts of Big Ideas that Clarke's imperfect works points to.
See also my Goodreads review.