Book Review: Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds, “The Medusa Chronicles”

Review by Duncan Lunan

Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds, “The Medusa Chronicles”, Gollancz, £11.89 hardback, 441 pp.

(First published in different form, Interzone # 264, April 2016.)

One or two eyebrows may have been raised last week, when I mentioned in ‘Balloons in Space’ the possibility of using hydrogen-filled airships in the atmospheres of Venus, Mars, Titan, Jupiter and Saturn.  The losses of the R101 in 1930 and the Hindenburg in 1937 put governments and the public off all airships, not just hydrogen-filled ones.  Proponents of hydrogen power and helium-filled airships argue that the R101 was brought down by structural flaws, not the lifting gas  (my late Aunt Ethel, watching the R101 pass unsteadily over London on its final flight, remarked to a neighbour, “That thing doesn’t want to fly”), and Barnes Wallis’s superior framework for the R100 never got a decent chance to prove itself.  What destroyed the Hindenburg was the electrical properties of its aluminium-based paint, a mixture not too different from the one used as propellant in Space Shuttle boosters.  The atmospheres of Mars and Venus are carbon dioxide, Titan’s is mainly nitrogen and those of Jupiter and Saturn are mainly hydrogen and helium, none of which will support combustion in the absence of oxygen.  Hal Clement’s novel Mission of Gravity pointed out that in sunlight, a jet of chlorine would be hypergolic  (self-igniting)  in a hydrogen atmosphere, but that’s not a possibility that need detain us here.

Fig. 1. ‘A Meeting with Medusa’ audio

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa  (Fig. 1)  begins with a devastating crash of a helium-filled airship, but that’s due to a mid-air collision, which tend to be even more lethal when between heavier-than-air craft.  Having been in the similar situation of a near-miss, I have to say that it was an interesting experience but I can’t recommend it.  Clarke’s character Howard Falcon survives as what Anne McCaffrey calls a ‘shell-person’, encased in a machine body, and in his growing estrangement from humanity he sees himself as a bridge to the machine civilisation to come.  In Man and the Planets  (1983),  I contrasted Falcon’s attitude and the Terry Nation’s Daleks’ with McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and its counterpart in Larry Niven’s Becalmed in Hell.  To my mind, the Daleks, with their repetitive dialogue and hatred of purely organic beings, make more convincing shell-people than a spaceship which falls in love with its pilot and sings grand opera.

Falcon is however a natural for balloon exploration of the water-bearing layer of Jupiter’s atmosphere, during which aeronaut he discovers sentient airborne life.  That possibility has been attracting attention ever since the Voyager spacecraft discovered ‘blue holes’ in Jupiter’s clouds, with water-vapour below  (Fig. 2).  It was hoped that the Galileo mission’s entry probe  (Fig. 3)  might go down one of those, though it couldn’t be aimed with that degree of accuracy.  By ill luck it went down a hot dry ‘brown hole’  (Fig. 4), and the possibility of life within Jupiter remains elusive, though Carl Sagan was an enthusiast for it, particularly in his TV series and book Cosmos.  Initially, Falcon’s hot-hydrogen Kon-Tiki floats 37 miles above Jupiter’s main cloud deck, about the same height as the Waverider probe in the late Ed Buckley’s painting for Man and the Planets  (Fig. 5).  It’s when he descends to the cloud tops  (Fig. 6) that he finds life below, and he has to escape by fusion ramjet and rocket at the end of the sequence.

A Meeting with Medusa first appeared in Playboy, December 1971, and was reprinted in the Clarke anthology The Wind from the Sun  (1972).  In their book-length sequel  (Fig. 7), Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds project Falcon’s life over the ‘troubled centuries’ which Clarke foresaw ahead, but although his failing human body is increasingly replaced by prostheses, his experiences bring his human values to the fore, advocating them both to the Machines and to off-planet humanity.  As the Machines achieve sentience he teaches them self-respect and independence, but also concealment and duplicity – which comes back to bite us later, as it does with Hal 9000 in 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Fig. 7. ‘The Medusa Chronicles’ cover

Falcon and the other characters of A Meeting with Medusa consider themselves bound by a more advanced version of the Star Trek Prime Directive, but when the Martian settlers discover that the Jovian medusae secrete a material analogous to ambergris, they embark on a counterpart of whaling, ignoring their victims’ sentience, until Falcon marshals Earth government action against them.  One irony here is that in the 1950s, before the question of cetacean sentience arose, in Clarke’s novel The Deep Range whales were farmed on an industrial scale, until humanity turned vegetarian under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism.  After the question did arise in the early 60s, he wrote Dolphin Island, perhaps to redress the balance by influencing younger readers.

The Medusa Chronicles goes underwater, briefly, in a wholly unconvincing sequence.  However advanced, I cannot believe that a robot built to serve drinks in a swimming pool could function in the open sea at a depth of thousands of feet.  Even after it supposedly saves the day, the major characters are still on a crippled submarine which is ‘sinking fast’ and approaching its breakup depth.  Evacuation is in progress, but their unportrayed escape is comparable to Hope and Crosby’s miraculous off-camera survival in The Road to Morocco.

The Medusa Chronicles is a misnomer:  the medusae don’t feature again, and when sentient life is discovered in the core of Jupiter, it regards them as irrelevant.  These are the Falcon chronicles, and the obvious title would be Men, Martians and Machines, if Eric Frank Russell hadn’t bagged it long before.  The rise of the Machines, in alliance with the misguided Martian settlers, presents a truly ominous threat, not fully recognised even when they start demolishing the inner planets.

In Clarke’s later collaborative novels, every so often there’s a passage clearly written in his distinctive style, such as the minefield sequence in Trigger, his collaboration with Michael P. Kube-McDowell.  Baxter and Reynolds achieve it here with Falcon’s eye-witness account of the destruction of Earth’s surface by the Machines;  it recalls Jan Rodricks’s account at the climax of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Falcon’s survival afterwards seems a bit of a cheat, until you realise that if his earlier gondola could escape from Jupiter’s water-bearing layer, getting out of Earth’s atmosphere is no problem.  But with the advanced life which is discovered deep within Jupiter, fascinating as its setting is, they’ve missed a trick in not alluding to Clarke’s story The Fires Within, where life based on condensed matter is discovered within the Earth.  Condensed matter is a poor relation in SF nowadays, overlooked in favour of the more exotic content of neutron stars and black holes, but it still has enormous potential.  I would strike a blow for its liberation, were the consequences not likely to be so destructive… Another energy source within Jupiter’s core may be cold fusion, though there’s no direct evidence for it, but as Clarke’s Martian settlers in The Sands of Mars use it in the guise of ‘meson resonance reactions’ to ignite Phobos, he would probably have sneaked in a reference to it.

In his contribution to Man and the Planets, the late Chris Boyce thought that the supposed threat from sentient machines was a chimera:  in his view, mind-machine interactions would grow ever closer rather than separate.  It happens here, but at a higher level akin to spirituality, and there are echoes of Tibetan Buddhism in that:  the Dalai Lama has said that the Berkleian strand in western philosophy is the one which most appeals to him.  The destiny of the Machines which precede and accompany Falcon into Jupiter’s core is akin to Hal 9000’s in 2010, Odyssey Two, though if Falcon equates to the ‘Star Child’ Bowman, to some extent their relative rôles are reversed, since they guide him through the transition.  But the outcome differs from 2010‘s in one major respect:  ‘something wonderful’ happens, as predicted in 2010, but it’s incompatible with turning Jupiter into a star.  There’s no need to, when the beings down there control the stars themselves.     

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