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On The Steel Breeze
by Alastair Reynolds
Ace, $26.95, 483 pp
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, click here for that review.

This timeline is centuries into Earth’s future; mankind has technological marvels that would seem magic to us and people now live to an extremely old age – 200 years and more.  The series focuses on one family that has been instrumental in taking mankind to space – the Akinyas.  The first book followed a brother and sister, Sunday and Geoffrey, in their search for the remains of their grandmother, Eunice, who was the one responsible for expanding humanity to the stars.

This book takes up a generation later, with Sunday’s daughter, Chiku.  Chiku has made a profound decision to clone herself – twice.  This technology allows her to remain in contact with her clones and to incorporate their experiences and memories into herself, or actually – into each one of them.  Theoretically, all three would be, at those moments of upload, identical.  Then the three of them draw straws: one to stay on Earth, one to leave for space to continue the search for Eunice’s body and her ship, and one to leave with a caravan of colony ships for a new world.

Chiku Yellow, on Earth, leads a quiet and safe life with little purpose.  Her one son forsakes her for a life undersea after a selected mutation.  Rather than embracing his choice, she feels abandoned.  Her life is unremarkable for a very long time until she receives an upload request from Chiku Green, on the colony ship.  She hasn’t uploaded data from her sister-clones for years and now cannot since the key is inactive in her brain. Then, she is contacted by a merperson and asked for her assistance to contact a person named Lin Wei, also known as Arethusa.  Lin Wei was a contemporary of Chiku’s parents and known by them.  She pioneered the genetic mutation process to enable humans to live underwater.  She’s now a very large, very old whale living inside an asteroid. She’s also something of a recluse and has refused all overtures from her ‘descendants’, the merpeople.  She’s something of an icon.  Chiku refuses but the merpeople have a lure:  they recovered her sister-clone, Chiku Red’s, ship and body.  And while both the ship and the body are badly damaged, Chiku Red’s key implant is still intact and could be put into Chiku Yellow.  How bad does she want to know what each of her sisters has to tell her?  What is so urgent on the colony ship that Green would need her, so many light years away?  And what happened to Red’s mission to recover Eunice’s body and possibly a new propulsion system?

Meanwhile, on the colony ship, Chiku Green has made two momentous discoveries.  After an accident, she discovered a hidden secret tunnel that led to an unknown chamber – a very, very large chamber…with plants…and elephants.  (Elephants are intrinsic to this story going back to the Geoffrey story in the first book.)  But these are not ordinary elephants and their caretaker is Eunice.  Although, it isn’t the organic Eunice, this is an artilect – memories of Eunice downloaded into an inorganic body.  And this Eunice tells Chiku that she’s been hiding in this hidden chamber ever since she encountered a more powerful artilect that attempted to kill her with viruses and malware - an artilect that is still present in the cybernet that manages and protects Earth.  Eunice speculates that the attack came after her internet inquiries into the world, Crucible, to where the colony ship travels. Chiku Green decides that Chiku Yellow needs to find out what the connection is and whether this artilect, Arachne, is a danger.  This is the message that Yellow receives.  Much of the story also revolves around the internal politics aboard the colony ships and the problem of slowing down and stopping once they reach Crucible; they need that new propulsion system.

Chiku Yellow does attempt to discover what Arachne is but finds much more than she expected.  Arachne is the downloaded memories of Lin Wei and Arachne is hiding the truth of Crucible; a truth that may destroy all the colony ships and their millions of passengers.  Yellow also finds a real purpose to her life – save Chiku Red.

This is a grand story.  I shy away from using the work “epic” as that tends to be overused describing fantasy.  This is a grand, sweeping science fiction story and well worth your time if you need a welcome break from the pervasive flow of fantasy stories.  The point of view shifts from Chiku Green to Chiku Yellow and that is my first criticism.  The author gives the reader no clue which viewpoint is the focus for each chapter.  After a while, I was able to discern it within the first couple paragraphs but it was confusing at first.  My second criticism is the same one I had for his first book – he gives no physical description of his characters.  Other than knowing that the Akinya family is ethnically African, I don’t know what any of them look like.  I don’t like that; I need a better connection to the characters.

Other than those two points, this was an engrossing tale.  The plot was wonderful, a sort of braided storyline where each of the three stories had something that touched on the others.  I completely enjoyed knowing Chiku Green and Yellow.  I was fascinated with the idea of Arachne and Eunice.  And I was kept intrigued with the developments on Crucible and the alien encounter.  Yes, there are aliens but I won’t say more.  The elephants had something to contribute and a hint that there is more to come.  Even Chiku Red had a significant part to play in the story resolution.  I am really looking forward to the third story; I really want to know what happens on Crucible and Earth now that so much has changed.   ~~ Catherine Book

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