The novel “The Medusa Chronicles” by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2016. It’s the official sequel to the novella “A Meeting with Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke.
The contact with Jupiter’s “medusae” was an extraordinary feat for Howard Falcon, but being a cyborg capable of doing things impossible for a normal human being leaves him even more isolated. Despite this, he’s sometimes considered useful to accomplish some very special missions, for example when some machines become sentient.
In 1968, the space race is a part of the cold war between the USA and the USSR and the Moon missions are an important part of it. When an asteroid is spotted en route to Earth, the hostility between the two superpowers must give way to a collaboration to save the world from catastrophe.
In 1971, Arthur C. Clarke published the novella “A Meeting with Medusa”, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella of the Year and the Japanese Seiun Award, given to foreign works. This work begins with the crash of an airship in which Commander Howard Falcon is injured so badly that the only way to save him is to transform him into a cyborg, and then tells his journey into Jupiter, where he encounters native creatures he nickname medusae.
Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds can be considered Arthur C. Clarke’s heirs, and decades later they wrote an authorized sequel to “A Meeting with Medusa”. It’s not essential to have read the original novella because in this sequel the authors include many references to it that allow you to understand Howard Falcon’s story. If possible, you should still read it because it represents one of Clarke’s peaks in short fiction.
“The Chronicles of Medusa” expands Howard Falcon’s story, as he ends up being at the center of important moments in the future history of humanity even if his situation isolates him from other people. After his accident, he’s more machine than man, and that prolongs his life, even more, when medicine helps to maintain the vitality of his parts that are still organic. For this reason, Howard Falcon’s story continues for centuries with the tale of important moments in the future of humanity as it expands into the solar system.
The authors’ choice has strengths and weaknesses. Jupiter represents only a part of that future history which also includes sentient machines. Both authors wrote works in the tradition of space opera and in “The Chronicles of Medusa” they tell some stories full of a sense of wonder as well. On the other hand, this fragments the novel, which almost feels like an anthology of future stories linked by the presence of Howard Falcon. The other characters come and go, although there are some recurring ones, and the protagonist’s development is limited despite his centuries of life.
“The Chronicles of Medusa” also reveals its alternate history nature with some parts set in the 20th century that tell of the joint effort between the USA and the USSR to prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth causing a global catastrophe. This choice struck me as a distraction from the main story that could have been avoided.
Overall, I believe that the merits of “The Chronicles of Medusa” outweigh its flaws. The authors developed Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas that go beyond “A Meeting with Medusa” and finding references to his works is part of the fun. They added their ideas by expanding the scale of the original work in space and time. It’s a novel with ups and downs but I found the ups to be very fantastic and evocative. If you’re interested in speculations on the future of humanity, on exotic forms of life, even artificial, I recommend reading it.