There is an image that crops up over and over on old sci-fi book covers and in more contemporary TV shows that I think evokes a particular strand within science fiction. The image is of a skull inside a space helmet or a skeleton within a space suit. It implies death and horror and age but in the context of space and the future. It also highlights a paradox of how we symbolise time.
The paradox is one I have mentioned before with dinosaurs. We use dinosaurs to symbolise what is old an ancient because they are from the past even though that makes them literally younger than us. Likewise the future, symbolised by space traveller, stands in for the new even though the future is necessarily old. A skull in a spacesuit splits the difference, indicating decay and death with the trappings of the future.
The idea of an old future runs through Alastair Reynold’s Shadow Captain. A sequel to 2016’s Revenger, the story continues the piratical adventures of the Ness sisters in a solar system that has a past deeply layered like geological strata. Fragmented and scattered, humanity lives on either mini-planets that use ‘swallowers’ (mini black holes) for gravity or crumbling space habitats. All the major planets have gone and between the remaining micro-worlds solar-sail equipped ships trade and fight.
Shadow Captain flips the narrative from Arafura Ness (the younger sister aka Fura) to Adrana who is still suffering from the attempt by the now dead pirate captain Bosa Sennen. Stuck with an under crewed ship of dread appearance and fearsome reputation, the sisters are struggling with the personal consequences of the previous book. Fura is infected with ‘the glowy’ leading to paranoia and personality changes, while Adrana still feels the after effects of Bosa Sennen’s psychological conditioning.
Events take them to Wheel Strizzardy, a backwater space habitat, where the sisters are drawn into the machinations of a local crime lord as they try to escape the legacy of Bosa Sennen’s murderous reputation.
This is a darker and slower novel that Revenger. The nature of the setting is clearer and the gothic decay of the solar system matches the pirate aesthetics of the plot. Everything is recycled parts and forgotten technology amid betrayals and secrets.
Only in the final part of the novel do we return to the broader arc of the series. What is the nature of the ‘quoins’ that fuel trade between worlds and what accounts for the rise and fall of civilisations on the myriad of tiny worlds?
Dark and twisty. It is a more space-faring take on the idea of an ancient future than, say, The Book of the New Sun but there is a similar sense of antiquity and loss.