Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds: The Medusa Chronicles

Cover of The Medusa Chronicles

“The Apollo Moon programme is cancelled,” the man behind the desk was saying. “But the good news is you two good old boys are gonna get the chance to save the world.”

This is a slightly odd one.

In 1971 Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novella entitled “A Meeting With Medusa”, which won the Nebula Award for best novella the following year, and which has been reprinted in many collections ever since. It told the story of a balloon flight through the clouds of Jupiter, during which the lone pilot encounters huge sentient creatures, like giant jellyfish (the “medusae” of the title), floating in the upper levels of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds are British science fiction authors who are in many ways natural successors to Clarke, albeit slightly more melancholy in outlook. Baxter, in particular, shares Clarke’s penchant for “sense of wonder” stories based on new scientific ideas, and he has co-written a trilogy of science fiction novels with Clarke, collectively called A Time Odyssey.

Now, forty-five years after “A Meeting With Medusa”, Baxter and Reynolds have joined forces to produce The Medusa Chronicles, a novel “inspired by” Clarke’s novella.

Cover of The Medusa EncounterStrangely, this isn’t even the first novel to be based on that novella. In 1990, Paul Preuss gave us The Medusa Encounter. It was the fourth of a series of six novels based on Clarke short stories (the Venus Prime series), which had started life in the 1980s as a draft for a computer game. The novels take the settings from six Clarke stories, and incorporate them into the adventures of a young woman travelling around the solar system. Clarke’s name featured prominently on the covers, and the primitive wireframe graphics from the cancelled game were incorporated as illustrations. (Preuss tells the full story of how the novels came into existence on his blog.) I have the first three novels in the Tor edition, and the second three from Avon. The difference in choice of cover art is striking, with each of the Tor covers (example below) depicting a head-and-shoulders view of a young woman in reflective mood, illuminated by hi-tech lighting. Avon, on the other hand (example above) obviously decided to pitch straight for teenage boys of all ages.

Cover of Breaking Strain

Anyway, back to Baxter and Reynolds. This book sticks tightly to the content of the original novella. In fact, the novella is essentially the missing first chapter of the novel, which picks up the threads of Clarke’s story a few months later, and continues it into the indefinite future. Clarke’s central character, Howard Falcon (the pilot of the Jovian balloon expedition) is again the central character of the novel. There’s a Big Reveal concerning Falcon at the end of Clarke’s novella which I’m reluctant to disclose, although it’s necessarily given away in the opening chapter of this book. Clarke closes his story by hinting at what Falcon’s future will be, and Baxter and Reynolds have set themselves the challenge of fleshing out Clarke’s hint in a way that’s faithful to the original story and Clarke’s particular vision of the future of humanity.

I think they’ve been pretty successful. They’ve picked over the novella in detail, lifting minor characters and making them into major players in Falcon’s later life. Tiny details from the novella are revisited and expanded upon in the novel. A single incident from Clarke’s story (in which Falcon saves the life of a “simp”—a “super-intelligent chimp”) is taken as a defining moment in Falcon’s life and revisited in several ways. There’s also a moment of gentle retconning, in which Baxter and Reynolds explain away Clarke’s dated mention of a “surface” below Jupiter’s clouds that we now know isn’t there.

The story involves Falcon (now almost immortal as a result of medical technology) as he participates in the further exploration of the solar system, and becomes a mediator in humanity’s eventual conflict with the machine intelligences it has created and over which it has lost control. There are long sense-of-wonder passages that seem like exactly the sort of thing Clarke would be writing if he were still with us—the detailed description of a descent all the way to Jupiter’s mysterious core, for instance.

Interestingly, Baxter and Reynolds seem to have decided that they can’t depict Clarke’s 1970s vision of mankind’s future expansion into the solar system as realistically arising from our disillusioned and largely space-indifferent world of the 2010s. Their novel is set in an alternate future, in which the Apollo program didn’t just go to the Moon and then suffer the onset of public indifference—instead, the Apollo technology was used in the late ’60s to save the world from an asteroid impact, after which public enthusiasm for establishing a human presence in space was guaranteed.

For Clarke aficionados, many little affectionate nods to his work are smuggled into this story. The robot manufactured in Urbana, Illinois; mention of György Ligeti‘s haunting choral work, Lux Aeterna; Discovery-class spacecraft; a Clavius Base on the Moon; an organization named Spaceguard; even an astronaut in the novel’s alternative Apollo era who goes to see “… a new space movie, some damn science fiction thing. Opens with ape men beating each others’ brains out with clubs made of bone.”

So it’s a solid story and also good fun, though I occasionally had the sense I was watching Baxter and Reynolds play some sort of parlour game—”Look what we’re doing now!” I would recommend it if you want a fix of Arthur C. Clarke nostalgia, but all in all I think I’d have preferred an entirely new novel by either Baxter or Reynolds.

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