Put your finger up to the night sky and there are 15,000 galaxies under your fingernail. It makes me want to travel a little farther than the flight to New York on which I currently sit. True, Earth may be an extraordinary and unique combination of the universal elements found across all those galaxies, and there is certainly enough variety of nature to astound and intrigue the average human mind for a lifetime even on just the squiggle of an island in northern European that markontour calls home. But 15,000 galaxies under one fingernail? You can’t help but want to explore it. That’s why we need science fiction and Alastair Reynolds is the best living purveyor of it.
In his latest novel,The Blue Remembered Earth, Reynolds imagines human life post-climate catastrophe. The good news is that humans survive self-inflicted disaster and recover enough not only to bio-engineer the Earth back into a habitable state, but in so doing work out a means to survive and thrive throughout the solar system and possibly beyond.
The bad news is that many billions of humans and other sentient beings suffered and died out before the situation was rescued. Large parts of previously inhabited land are now devoid of life, with humanity squeezed into dense habitation in Scandanavia, Greenland, Patagonia and Western Antarctica. Moreover, post-global warming the distinction between human and machine has become rather blurred, with brains enhanced by neuro-machinery, including a sect who have turned themselves into sub-aquatic beings. A benign authoritarianism prevails which prevents individual humans ever again being stupid enough to imperil the greater good.
Despite its title, however, Blue Remembered Earth is as much concerned with life off terra firma as it is with the survival of humanity itself, as the elephant-studying heir of an African renewable energy billionaire follows a trail left by his pioneering space-travelling grandmother.
This is not exactly new terriotry for Reynolds. His brilliant Revelation Space trilogy chronicled the quest of future generations to figure out why, despite all the odds, extra-terrestrial exploration fails to discover any other intelligent life in the galaxy. But whereas that series looked far enough into the future to imagine vast colonies of humanity spread out across countless solar systems, Blue Remembered Earth brings things back to a time where propulsion technology has only just gained the ability to move safely beyond Uranus.
As I stare out over the Atlantic in middle age, listening to a twentieth century troubador sing about the first moon landing, I can’t help but confront the fact that, like Billy Bragg, it is unlikely that I will ever leave the gravitational pull of the planet where I was born*. My generation will never know if there really is a restaurant at the end of the universe.
But as long as there is just a bit of clear sky in London, or wherever else I happen to be, I can always look up beyond Earth’s puny and damaged atmosphere, lift one fingernail in front of my eyes, and confidently speculate that in 15 billion galaxies obscured by flesh and calcium (not to mention all those dimensions), something different, exciting, and very much alive must be occurring. Thank you Alastair Reynolds. Thank you science fiction.
* ‘The Space Race is Over‘, on William Bloke