Review of the short story collection Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds’ other collection published this fall, Zima Blue and Other Stories, is a good collection, but Galactic North is the shit, man!
It collects Reynolds’ short stories set in the universe of his cycle of novels starting with Revelation Space. It’s almost a primer of how his future history developed, featuring several pivotal events mentioned in the novels, as well as a few characters who either appear or are alluded to there. The collection actually almost works as its own standalone story cycle, which is pretty neat since it wasn’t written that way.
Reynolds’ basic strengths are his ability to create and describe places that feel truly alien, or at least deeply disturbing, and his flair for suspense and horror. For instance, “Nightingale” features the hunt for a war criminal onto a dormant automated hospital ship, which is about as frightening an environment as one can imagine: What exactly do you think a hospital ship needs to be like in order to care for the injured during a war? And on top of that it’s dark and potentially airless, and was run by an artificial intelligence whose mental state is anyone’s guess. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that eventually it will. And then when it does, Reynolds twists the knife in an unexpected and hideous way. While essentially a haunted house story, it’s gripping stuff.
Reynolds also explores the nature of humans who have been modified into something unusual. The first story in the sequence, “The Great Wall of Mars”, concerns the Conjoiners – humans who have formed a technological group mind – and the opposition they face from the rest of humanity, who are afraid the Conjoiners will absorb everyone else into their fold. In contrast to the common thinking about posthuman experience – which is often portrayed as unknowable or at least weirdly alien and antithetical to the human experience – Reynolds explores the thoughts and motivations of these nascent posthumans, drawing them as all-too-human, a sort of enlightened cult. The story’s protagonist, Nevil Clavain, arrives among the Conjoiners as a negotiator and learns that they are playing a deeper game than anyone had suspected.
Similarly, “Weather” takes place in a damaged lighthugging starship, and provides some insight into the mysterious Conjoiner Engines of the novels, and another oblique glimpse into the lives of the Conjoiners themselves. It’s basically a short character drama, but it illuminates the backdrop considerably.
There are two other stories which provide a glimpse of the early days of Reynolds’ future history: “Glacial” is a mystery about a dead – and unexpected – human colony, and lets us visit with some friends from “Great Wall” again. “A Spy in Europa” is a rather brutal spoy story which descends into horror. It’s not as polished as “Nightingale”, but it sheds some light on another faction in the setting, the Demarchists, who walk a fine line between heaven and hell, but of course are as fallible as all the rest of us.
“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” concerns the legacy of those early Demarchist days, and the dangers of obsession, as its titular figure is obsessed with collecting creatures from around the galaxy and showing them off to his peers, and is interested in acquiring one special creature in particular. It contains echoes of Reynolds’ novel Chasm City (my favorite of his novels), but has its own unique sense of foreboding and terror. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” sort of story.
The volume wraps up with the title story, which follows its characters on a chase far into the future, while humanity is otherwise threatened by an implacable foe. I can see what Reynolds was aiming for here, with characters living for millennia through time dilation, focused (more or less) on their specific goals, but I had trouble connecting with the characters or believing in their motivations over such a long time frame. I found the nature of the foe to be a little hard to swallow, too. The story is okay, its grand scope making it an interesting curiosity, but it feels more like a writing exercise for dealing with lengthy timeframes, which comes into play in the novels. Still, I liked it more than the other story in the collection, “Dilation Sleep”, which is a pretty straightforward “things are not what they seem” yarn. To be fair, Reynolds’ afterward suggests that it was written earlier than the other stories in the book.
But very few short story collections hit home runs every time, and Galactic North does much better than most in that regard. There are stories here to delight, provoke, horrify, and wonder at. It’s outstanding, and it reminds me (once again) that Reynolds really is one of the very best writers of science fiction working today.