Arthur C. Clarke brought us many worlds of wonder. One of his most glorious rides is the novella, A Meeting With Medusa. It not only turned one of the planets we can see with the naked eye into a place that is alive and complex, but the journey down into the crushing depths of Jupiter’s atmosphere felt real, because Clarke’s prose and his central character, Howard Falcon made it that way.
Falcon, half-man, half-machine after a horrific accident, is the first man who can descend into Jupiter’s crushing atmosphere, and there, discovers not just life, but an entire ecology based on the physics, astronomy and chemistry of a world we know well. But Clarke’s well-drawn, hard science fiction snapshot of this world was frustratingly brief (and even more brief in a painting in one episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos).
So there is a lot to live up to for the writers who dared to bring that snapshot back and expand it into a fully-realized “world” in the literary sense, a solar-system spanning human society. Baxter and Reynolds succeed.
Up until now, I have not been a big fan of Stephen Baxter. Although he brands himself the heir to Arthur C. Clarke, I have felt that the rights to Clarke’s story worlds did not make him the same kind of world-spinner. Baxter has his own voice and his own interests. For example, although I enjoyed Proxima—because I like colonization and exploration stories—a couple pages into Ultima, I was done with that series, because I am just not a fan of alt history. The more alt it is, the less I like I like it.
The Medusa Chronicles is an alt history novel, and at first I was disappointed in that choice. Writing about the future means you don’t need to write about an alternate 20th or early 21st century. Why bother? Why not let us imagine this is our future?
I sort of get why the authors decided to go the alt history route in The Medusa Chronicles. The novella A Meeting With Medusa was originally published in 1971, at which time it was still possible that by 2066 we could have a person exploring Jupiter. Now, that seems much less likely. So the authors decided to create an alternate history in which humankind’s exploration of space was sped up markedly by the arrival of civilization-destroying asteroid in the 1960’s that radically altered the plans of the Apollo missions. We got to Mars sooner, we got to Jupiter sooner, we settled the solar system sooner.
Within this foray into alternate history, the authors stayed much closer to the spirit of Clarke’s novella than I feared they might. They continued to explore the world of the Jovians Falcon discovered, while also examining how a society that creates a cyborg like Falcon might evolve over time and face crises because of that evolution.
This book also, to my happy surprise, satisfied that part of me that is constantly on the lookout for solar system-centric fiction that doesn’t feel this compulsion to bring in extra solar-system aliens (the very end of the book not withstanding—it is a throwaway aside at best). Aliens from our own solar system is such an old story gambit, it’s fresh again.