An Ambassador Between Man and Machine: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

It was in 1971, in the pages of Playboy, in a Nebula Award winning novella which modern masters Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds cast as “perhaps [his] last significant work of short fiction,” (p.440) that Arthur C. Clarke introduced the world to Howard Falcon: a dirigible captain who would have died in the aftermath of his craft’s catastrophic crash if his remains hadn’t been grafted onto the mechanical contraption that would become his body.

Unfortunately for Falcon, there were those who thought a line was crossed by the surgeons that saved him, thus their experiments were not repeated in the proceeding years, stranding the cyborgised captain “midway between two orders of creation,” according to Clarke. In an attempt to escape this isolation, Falcon ventured forth to explore the solar system, becoming, before long, the first astronaut to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter, and meet with the immense Medusae there, as well as the waxy mantas that fed upon them.

He secured his place in the history books in the process—but, as Clarke concluded, Falcon’s role was far from over, for he would go on to be be “an ambassador […] between the creatures of carbon and the creatures of metal who must one day supersede them. Both would have need of him in the troubled centuries that lay ahead.”

A surprisingly substantial extension of ‘A Meeting With Medusa’ suggested by chance “by Alastair Reynolds in the course of a nostalgic email exchange” with Stephen Baxter, The Medusa Chronicles tells the story of those very centuries, and it is—if you’ll pardon my hyperbole—frickin’ terrific.

It’s also a proper chronicle, in that it begins before Clarke’s classic, with a young, fully human Howard discussing his desire to fly with his talking toy robot Adam, and ends some eight hundred years later—with Falcon in the company of another Adam, as it happens:

One ambiguous benefit of his cyborgised state, which had only slowly revealed itself over time, was a virtual immortality. […] Falcon’s mechanical components were of course trivial to maintain and upgrade. But his biological residue, drastically reduced by the QE IV accident, was also comparatively easy to manage, his brain and residual spinal column cushioned by machinery and restored by infusions of vat-grown stem-cell-based neurones. Indeed his lack of organs, of stomach and liver and genitals, rendered him calmed than most, it often seemed to him. A calm, passionate witness to centuries rolling like tides across the solar system.

To wit, Falcon is on hand when simps—that is to say superchimps—are recognised as legal persons, and given the relevant rights. He’s equally nearby when Jupiter’s peaceful Medusae are taken advantage of untold generations later. He’s also involved in the rise—and ultimately, I’m afraid, the fall—of “a successful scientific world state, a dream thousands of years old. You could call it a utopia… if not for the bad dreams from the sky.”

The-Medusa-Chronicles-UKThese bad dreams, in the words of World Government representative Thera Springer, are the machines The Medusa Chronicles revolves around, from the prologue to the very last chapters of the narrative, for Falcon is intimately involved in their development.

In the first of the novel’s six novella-length sections, it is he—as a hybrid of man and machine “not so prone to see a divide between biological and artificial consciousness”—who pushes for the serving robot who saves the day when an attempt is made on the President’s life to be treated with common decency.

As such, in episode the second, it’s Falcon the WG sends to the site of an accident on an ice-rich asteroid. The autonomous machines which had been minding the mining operations there have stopped responding to all contacts and commands since some of their number were destroyed. When the captain finds them in a state of what looks like mourning, he’s summarily instructed by his superiors—who we know have a vested interest in the production flow the robots are integral to—to deliver a command phrase which will essentially factory reset said, ridding them of their inconvenient consciences.

An idealist in spite of all the awful things he’s been put through, Falcon “won’t commit one evil to prevent another,” and his decision, in this pivotal instant, lays the foundation for the rest of Baxter and Reynolds’ tremendous tribute to Arthur C. Clarke—because what follows, from this and indeed the ambiguous conclusion of ‘A Meeting with Medusa,’ is war; a war that lasts for most of a millennia between man, machine, and Falcon, their go-between.

As “a witness to these tectonic shifts of history,” to tragedy and travesty on a truly vast canvas, you’d forgive Falcon for floundering, but though there are moments in The Medusa Chronicles when his resolve is desperately tested, this is a captain who’ll boldly go down with his ship if it’s ever to sink. Appropriately, he’s a hero of the old mould; a tragic figure who knows that “people always fear […] what they can’t understand”—like him, in the beginning. Yet he stands strong on the wheeled apparatus he has instead of legs, and it’s of no small significance that “the scale of things never ceased to stir his soul.”

Nor is the narrative of The Medusa Chronicles any less appealing than Falcon’s fantastic character. It starts small, with a simple shindig on a ship, but Baxter and Reynolds embiggen their story brilliantly with each successive section—sections that go from seeming standalone to informing one another in intimate and rewarding ways. It’s fitting, finally, that the ending—which takes in a hallucinatory journey to Jupiter Within, a school of Medusae as well as one last meeting of man and machine—has a real 2001: A Space Oddysey feel.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting The Medusa Chronicles to be much more than a tip of the hat to Arthur C. Clarke, but Baxter and Reynolds go far farther by realising a resounding sweep of a story with rich seams of science and speculation, some unforgettable spectacle and not a few emotional moments. The only thing that might have made it better, to my mind, is if ‘A Meeting with Medusa’ had been included.

The Medusa Chronicles is available from Saga in the US and from Gollancz in the UK.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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