Alaistair Reynolds (2007)

One of the big names in ‘the new space opera’ movement. His views on the advent of the future accord with my own.  From Death Ray 2.

Ex-astronomer Alaistair Reynolds has been credited with revitalising the moribund Space Opera with his tales of heroics in a universe suspiciously devoid of intelligent life. Death Ray talks to him about the Fermi paradox and the ever-present danger of futureshock.

The voice of Alaistair Reynolds, rolling and rich with south Welsh melody, is the voice of science. This is a man who has spent a good chunk of the last 20 years working for ESA. He’s a guy who has looked into space – real space, with stars and planets. This man knows his cosmic onions. But he is no stuffy engineer type, writing SF novels that are small on fiction but big on FACT, but is instead he is arguably the leading writer of space opera in Europe today.

“I suppose space opera has this somewhat tarnished image,” he says, speaking to Death Ray at his publisher’s offices. “But when I started writing I was completely unaware of that, to me space opera just means big scale science fiction that has lots of action and colour and scenery in it, basically. To me it’s okay as a label – it is what I do. I mean, I could quibble that I don’t think all of my books are space opera, but I don’t sit thinking about these things all the time, I just get on with it. I write hard science fiction, which is where you try and get the science right. But not all hard science fiction is space opera, and not all space opera is hard science fiction – look at Star Wars. A good definition I heard Robert Reed use recently is ‘core science fiction’, science fiction that to some extent does not attempt to transgress genre boundaries, I’m not trying to write a crossover fantasy or a mainstream novel. I’m essentially playing within the established framework of hard science fiction. That is ‘core science fiction’, and I’m happy to be doing it.”

So hard ‘core’ is Reynolds that he has the distinction of being one of the few writers these days whose books are adorned with huge thrusting spaceships (“An enormous phallic symbol on the front!” he says, with a big smile, of the cover to his first book, Revelation Space) of the kind that used to be a staple of SF book sections the world over. We say you just cannot have enough rounded, be-patterned Chris Foss style spacecraft, and for Reynolds too it’s very much a case of writing about what he loves. Brought up on Gerry Anderson, Star Trek, Asimov, Clarke, Ballard and 2000AD, he now buckles his interstellar swash in the footsteps of these writers, shows and comics. His universe plays with the Fermi paradox, which to brutally paraphrase it, posits the question: ‘Where the hell is everybody? ’ As a scientist, Reynolds is pretty sure himself that we’re alone in the galaxy.

“I do question that position all the time – I think you shouldn’t ever get in an entrenched position – but I’ve read a lot of science, particularly stuff like the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, which is a big book that came out in the 1980s by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, and this was like a bible for hard science fiction writers. It contained loads of cool stuff like the maximum information content of black hole, all things that you can put in science fiction stories. But it thinks deeply about the emergence of life in the universe, and its lines of argument suggest that we’re alone.”

Why? Galactic conquest, that’s why.

“It doesn’t appear that difficult to take over the galaxy, says Reynolds, “if you were an alien culture and you wanted to establish colonies on different planets all over the galaxy you could do it in a relatively short period compared to the age of the universe, and indeed the age of the galaxy. The fact is that that doesn’t appear to have happened, we don’t see alien relics lying around the solar system. If we saw a load of stars that were lined up into some sort of advertising symbol, it might be a bit of a giveaway, but we don’t, and that suggests that no-one has actually done it yet, so perhaps we’re the first.”

In Reynolds universe (not all his books are set there, mind) a race of intelligent machines, called the Inhibitors, deliberately hunt out the signs of intelligent life and destroy it. This means that the cosmos is mostly humanity’s own, Inhibitors’ notwithstanding, but space is a big place, and mankind has fractured along ideological lines described by each faction’s differing relationships with technology. However, though Reynolds enjoys using this divisiveness as a narrative device, he’s actually quite optimistic about people’s ability to get on. He has, after all, married a Frenchwoman and spent much of his academic life happily living in Holland.

“I love the idea of a unified Europe. The borders are down, we have a common currency, but there are still distinct regional flavours, I mean you really feel a Belgianness about Belgium and a Dutchness about Holland. And I think that’s great, why not make that a model for everywhere? As soon as you start to run into real ideological or religious boundaries things start to get tougher, but it will be interested to see how things go when Turkey is integrated as a member of the EU. Keep your fingers crossed, after that I think it’s inevitable we’ll see a world government not too far in the future. I think it could be really beautiful.

“The same with global warming. That’s another problem that is not insurmountable. I’m absolutely convinced it is happening, and that there is a large man-made element to it, but though the world will look very different in say fifty years, those people lucky enough to be living in western countries will still feel that they’re living in a pretty good place. You may take your holidays in a different place, and you may go by solar-powered dirigible rather than easy jet – Easy Dirigible – but you’ll still be able to go on holiday.

“We tend to feel that we’re living in a rapidly changing world, but I think people have always thought that, especially at various phases in the last 200 years. Look at the period between 1900 and 1930 – air travel, mass communication, mechanised warfare. Things changed tremendously in 30 years, probably more so than between 1970 and 2000. Things seem to picking up a bit again now – I had one of those future shock incidents a few days ago. I was in Amsterdam airport, and there was some security guards going round on Segways. And it was quite cool because I’d never seen a Segway in real life before. But if I’d been transported from say, 1997, and I’d had a glimpse of 2007 and I’d seen security cops on Segways I’d have thought that was like something out of Robocop, it’s the future. But in some respects, things will slow down. I read this report by Boeing about the longevity of the 747. That was introduced in 1969, so it’s already nearly 40 years old. But Boeing anticipate that there will still be commercial carriers using 747’s in 2070. So we’ll end up in a world that in some respects feels really weird and futuristic, but in other respects feels dated, in that we’re still zipping around in 747s rather than batwing aircraft. In reality, the future creeps up on you.”

The Fermi Paradox

Enrico Fermi was a physicist who fled Mussolini’s Italy to America in 1938, and developed much of the science that underpins the practical application of atomic theory to weaponry and energy. He also gave his name to “Fermi problems”, a maths tool used to make accurate, justifiable estimates based on seemingly incomplete, but known, data (for example, he calculated how powerful an atomic bomb blast was by dropping bits of paper and seeing how far they traveled from his hands during a test). In SF and cosmology, the Fermi Paradox is the name given to the Drake Equation, a Fermi problem about alien life based on the age of the universe, the number of stars, the likelihood of those stars having earth-like planets, the likelihood of those planets supporting life, and the likelihood of that life becoming intelligent and developing space faring technology. Even with all those ever-decreasing instances of likeliness, this equation suggests that galaxy should be teeming with alien civilizations. It isn’t. Either the underlying assumptions about Earth are incorrect, or, as in Reynolds’ books, evil robots are killing everything.


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