Alastair Reynolds: On The Steel Breeze

On The Steel Breeze is the sequel to last year’s Blue Remembered Earth, although you strictly speaking don’t need to read Blue to follow Breeze. It takes place starting in the mid-2300s, so about 200 years after its predecessor. Thanks to life-extension technologies, a few characters from Blue are still around, but the book centers on Chiku Akinya, daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the two principals of the first book.

Chiku has had herself cloned into three identical persons, memories evened out among them, and who then followed three different paths: Chiku Red flew after their grandmother Eunice’s ship, which had left the solar system at high speed at the end of the first book carrying Eunice on it. Chiku Green travelled aboard the Zanzibar, one of a fleet of starships (hollowed-out asteroids moving at more than 10% of light speed) heading to Crucible, a planet about 25 light years away which has what looked like evidence of alien intelligence on it, in the form of a strange object on its surface called Mandala. And Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth.

Most of the action takes place on Zanzibar, where Chiku Green has risen to a position on the council, but where the fleet is endangered by political turmoil and a more physical possibility that they won’t be able to stop before they fly past Crucible. She contacts Chiku Yellow on Earth who unearths some of the secrets that her sister has suspected, but at significant cost: Something threatens not just the fleet, but possibly every in the solar system as well, and there are surprises waiting at Crucible assuming humans manage to arrive there.

On The Steel Breeze, like its predecessors, is focused more on grand world-building than on clever plotting. The story is more sophisticated than Blue, the first book having disappointed me a bit in its fairly simply “quest” story. Breeze has more nuance in characters – mainly in the fleet – pursuing different agendas that are largely incompatible. Chiku Green makes some large personal sacrifices for what she feels is the good of her ship and her family. The characterizations are not Reynolds’ strong suit, and Chiku seems a bit too calculating in making her decisions. On the other hand Reynolds’ hand at politics is more deft than before.

The pieces of the story involving Chiku Yellow on Earth are the most exciting parts of the book, with a tense adventure on Venus followed by a hair-raising return to Earth. Her character arc is stronger, too, although as her tale fades into the background the closure her story achieves feels a little thin. The storytelling gimmick of telling the tale through the eyes of the two aspects of Chiku is clever in the first half, but doesn’t perhaps serve the characters the best in the second.

Of course there’s the alien presence at Crucible, which is not really the focus of the novel but plays some role at the end. It seems likely that it will be the focus of the third book.

Taken together, the two books feel like a modern take on Heinlein and Clarke styles of the future of humanity, expanding the world-building considerably. They’re very well-crafted works, but they do require some dedication as their pacing seems calculated to emphasize the world-building, and thus they’re not likely to be for everyone. I don’t count them among Reynolds’ best work, but I’m enjoying them so far. I’m hopeful that the next novel will bring a larger leap in technology and ideas content.

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth is near-future SF, taking place in the 2160s. Following two centuries of climate change (global temperature shifts, depletion of traditional energy supplies, rising sea levels), Africa is on the cusp of displacing China as the dominant world power. The powerful Akinya family dominates Africa and has interests throughout the solar system, to which humanity is still confined.

Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday are inheritors of the Akinya legacy, but both are marginalized by their family due to a shared lack of interest in its business affairs: Geoffrey researches elephants, while Sunday is an artist on the moon. But when their grandmother Eunice dies, their business-oriented cousins enlist Geoffrey to go to the moon to check out a safety deposit box she left behind. What he finds sends him and his sister on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system, following her path as an early explorer of Mars and beyond, despite great resistance from their cousins.

The novel has two major characteristics: It’s a world-building endeavor, and it’s a science fictional mystery involving a trail that Eunice left for her family to follow.

In general, I’m not a big fan of near-future SF, because the ideas are not big enough to satisfy me, and I’m just not terribly interested in extrapolating our current situation out only a century or two (i.e., a period where things are largely similar to our world today with some fairly straightforward changes). I appreciate what, for example, Charles Stross is doing in Halting State and Rule 34, but it’s more the story than the setting which pulls me along. I particularly dislike settings like that of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with dreary settings, little hope, and unlikeable characters.

Blue Remembered Earth falls into a slightly different category: The setting isn’t dystopic, and the story is a mystery wrapped in the shrouds of history (a bit like Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels in that way). Rather than the characters playing out a set of movements implied by the setting, they’re involved in their own story against a slightly exotic locale. And the mystery implies that there’s something a little more advanced out there as well, assuming it pays off properly. (I’ll talk about the mystery in more detail behind a spoiler cut below.)

This is one of Reynolds’ best efforts at world-building, and he does a good job of laying things out without it becoming tedious (although I did find Geoffrey’s research with elephants to be hard going). Some of the big hooks involve an omniscient surveillance system called the Mechanism which has essentially eliminated violent crime, aquatic transhumans, and most humans having virtual reality implants. There’s also a tension in manned space exploration being potentially supplanted by unmanned, as artificial intelligence gets to the point that it can take on the risks so humans don’t have to. (And if that sounds like a disappointing development, well, that’s one of the themes of the book.)

Geoffrey and Sunday’s quest operates as a travelogue of the solar system, as Geoffrey goes to the moon where he visited Sunday in the “Descrutinized Zone”, which is free of the Mechanism. There’s also a trip to Mars, which is just barely on the civilized side of being a frontier and has a few amazing wonders of its own. They’re accompanied in this by a telepresence simulation of Eunice herself, who embodies the character of the woman but naturally lacks many of her memories. But as Eunice was both family to the pair, and a significant figure in the exploration of the solar system, she plays a significant role.

Reynolds’ characterizations are not his strong suit, and BRE is not out of step with the rest of his work in this regard: Geoffrey, Sunday and Eunice are reasonably drawn, the other characters are largely two-dimensional. And there’s not a lot of character development – Geoffrey struggles a bit with not wanting to make waves with his family beyond what’s necessary for his research, but doesn’t want to just roll over and do whatever the cousins want, either. This tension does come to a head, but the resolution is somewhat dictated by outside forces, so there’s not a moment of epiphany or a significant character shift for him.

Blue Remembered Earth is sometimes noted as the first volume of a series titled “Poseideon’s Children”, but there’s almost no indication of that in the edition I have (save an offhanded comment in the author’s afterward), and the book in fact stands on its own perfectly well, not so much the first of a series as a novel which could have sequels.

Overall it’s a pretty good book, an enjoyable ride, probably sitting somewhere in the middle of Reynolds’ oeuvre in my opinion.

As promised, a little more spoilery commentary on the mystery side of the story after the cut:

Continue reading “Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth”

Spacetrawler Reviews Chasm City

The crew of Christopher Baldwin’s webcomic Spacetrawler reviews one of my favoritest novels, Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City:

Spacetrawler is a really fun webcomic, combining serious SF with humor and other silliness. If you’re intimidated by trying to catch up with this strip on-line, I recommend buying the handsome full-color paperback collection. The strip above is included as an extra at the end of the book.

(By the way, my own review of Chasm City is here. And Reynolds’ blog can be found here.)

Alastair Reynolds: Terminal World

Did hard SF writer Alastair Reynolds construct Terminal World just so he could write a steampunk adventure? Since the world is filled with dirigibles, which as I recently observed is the flavor du jour of steampunk, it sure seems like it. But there’s a lot more in here, too.

The novel opens in Spearpoint, the last city on Earth, a giant tower jutting towards the sky, covered with several towns, each of which has a lower technology level as you get closer to the surface (the Celestial Levels, Circuit City, Neon Heights, Steamtown, Horsetown), and not by choice – the ambient nature of the city forces this on Spearpoint, and travelling from one zone to another not only constricts what technology can operate there (irreparably damaging most technology carried in which can’t), but it’s a shock to biological systems to make the transition as well.

The story opens when an angel falls from the Celestial Levels into Neon Heights, where it’s brought to the morgue of a Doctor Quillon. Quillon has a special interest in strange beings arriving from elsewhere, because he’s an angel himself, one who years ago was part of a task force infiltrating the lower levels to see if modified angels could survive there. The mission went badly wrong, and Quillon was stranded in Neon Heights alone, knowing that other angels would love to recapture him for what he knows. This fallen angels has come to warn Quillon that he’s about to be hunted, and that he should leave Spearpoint immediately. With the help of his friend (and underworld organizer) Fray, Quillon leaves his life of ten years behind, conveyed by a foul-mouthed transporter named Meroka out of the city, just ahead of pursuing angels.

Outside the city they have several adventures, where Quillon is acquainted with the ravenous, biomechanical Carnivorgs, and the drug-addled, violent Skullboys, before they are rescued by Swarm, once the fleet of Spearpoint, but now the only source of civilization (never mind law) outside the city. Befriended by Swarm’s leader, Ricasso, Quillon is carried on a journey which reveals that the Earth is dying, but also that the zones which cover the planet have an underlying cause, and that there may be a way to help heal the planet before it dies completely.

It only takes a few pages to see that Reynolds’ notion of zones in Terminal World are very similar to the “zones of thought” in Vernor Vinge’s great novel A Fire Upon The Deep, only really different in the details. Vinge has more-or-less said that he came up with the zones to allow him to write traditional space opera, which he thinks is implausible otherwise due to the likelihood of a race going through the technological singularity before they would have the technology to embark on such adventures. And it feels like Reynolds is employing his own zones to a similar end, to write far-future SF where dirigibles, horses, and pistols exist side-by-side with angels, ray guns, and Spearpoint. While Reynolds’ world here feels a bit rough around the edges (the world outside Spearpoint feels a bit too simplistic, and the excuse that the planet is dying doesn’t feel entirely satisfying), overall it’s still an entertaining milieu, particularly the dichotomy of the city vs. everything else, and the adventures Quillon and Meroka have on their way out of Spearpoint.

The bulk of the story concerns Quillon’s experiences within Swarm, as its citizens are deeply skeptical of anyone from Spearpoint, due to not-yet-forgotten crimes committed against them years earlier. There’s a combination of politics (Quillon trying to earn their trust, and various schemes going on within Swarm) and travelogue (as Swarm visits a couple of interesting locales in its travels). The mechanics of the story focus on Quillon trying to heal the rift between Swarm and Spearpoint, as he finds himself with sympathies towards both entities, and figuring out the nature of the zones and what can be done to heal the fragmentation of the planet before it’s too late. The Skullboys and Vorgs are background color and obstacles to these missions, the Vorgs being the more interesting of the two, as the Skullboys are pretty generic gangs who apparently don’t have much contention within their own ranks (another rough edge in the setting). As always, Reynolds is excellent at dealing with the mechanics of the plot, especially in the story’s climax when several ships of Swarm have to run a brutal gauntlet under adverse conditions.

Reynolds is a cut above the typical hard SF author when it comes to characterizations, and he does a good job here, keeping us guessing for a while as to whether Quillon will ingratiate himself to Ricasso and other members of Swarm. Once that’s resolved, though, the characters do tend to collapse into whites and blacks, which is a bit disappointing. But at least the characters are engaging, and Ricasso in particular is a figure who makes some interesting decisions for debatable reasons.

But Quillon is the backbone of the story. He somewhat resembles Shadow, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s terrific novel American Gods, in that he’s very even-tempered, and seems to be dragged along by circumstances beyond his control for stretches of the story, though he’s a little more active than Shadow when he has the chance. Quillon’s story arc is one of a man who’s been beaten down and in hiding for years, and by overcoming adversity becomes a heroic figure doing what he can to help others and improve the world. He’s the glue who holds the story together.

The novel’s biggest disappointment is the ending, as our heroes manage to accomplish all of their goals, vanquishing several adversaries and delivering an important package to Spearpoint, but despite those accomplishments two key elements of the story are left unresolved: Saving Earth from the ravages of the zones remains a long-term goal, and the frailties are Quillon’s body are left decidedly hanging. Getting to that point is a lot of fun, but I wish Reynolds had been able to take things a little bit further. I don’t know if he’s planning a sequel, but without one, Terminal World is going to feel somewhat unfinished.

Following the “bigger ideas” approach of House of Suns, Terminal World‘s sticking to a single planet makes an interesting counterpoint. Although a decent adventure, I don’t think it’s one of Reynolds’ best. Too many unfinished edges, and not quite as satisfying.

That cover sure is gorgeous, though.

Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon

My favorite science fiction writer, Alastair Reynolds, has a new blog: Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon.

It includes the first chapter of his forthcoming novel, Terminal World. Which I really need to preorder soon…

Incidentally, I recently read his “hardcover Ace double“, Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers, which was fun. Minla’s Flowers is perhaps a bit obvious, but Thousandth Night is a very good prequel to his fine novel House of Suns, and it’s worth reading just for that.

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

Another year, another novel from Alastair Reynolds – which would be a blithe comment without also mentioning that whenever he publishes a new book, I buy the UK hardcover and drop whatever else I’m reading to read it. Yes, he’s that good: Even his weakest novels are packed with evocative settings and cool ideas. House of Suns is one of his better novels.

A framing sequence (of sorts) set hundreds of years in the future sets the backdrop, in which some rich and inquisitive humans cloned themselves a thousand times and set up family “lines” by sending each clone (“shatterling”) out on their own starship, in advance of the rest of humanity reaching the stars. The bulk of the novel takes place millions of years in the future: There’s no faster-than-light travel, but ships can near lightspeed, which combined with life-extension and hibernation technologies means that the members of the lines have lived for centuries (maybe millennia) of personal time, stretched to those millions of years via their travels.

The protagonists of the story are two members of the Gentian Line, Campion and Purslane, who have violated their line’s conventions by travelling together and becoming romantically involved (heterosexual – the clones are not exact). Campion is impulsive while Purslane is more measured and thoughtful. The Gentian Line travels the galaxy gathering information, and meets once every galactic cycle (!) to exchange that data. In between they accumulate wealth by constructing “stardams” – manipulating ringworlds left by the Priors – an extinct earlier civilization – to enclose dangerous objects – like exploding suns – for the protection of others. The backdrop also includes the Vigilance – a computer swarm observing the galaxy on its own – and the Absence – a black spot where the Andromeda Galaxy used to be.

Campion and Purslane are late to the line’s next gathering, which is good for them since someone else decided to come in and obliterate the Gentian Line. The survivors retreat to a world called Neume. Campion and Purslane had taken on a robot companion named Hesperus who had helped them during the disaster, but who was badly damaged. Two other robots, Cadence and Cascade, are also present as guests of the Line, and are doubtful he can be repaired, but Hesperus had left a final request to be given to the Spirit of the Air, a powerful machine entity which lives on Neume.

Their personal considerations aside, Campion and Purslane also get caught up in the Line’s family politics, which have become especially messy in the wake of the disaster, especially with prisoners to interrogate. Their only clues are the name “House of Suns”, a reference to a Line no one’s ever heard of, and the indication that Campion is somehow the catalyst of the attack, though no one can understand how.

As you can see, House of Suns starts out big and just gets bigger from there, with massive technology at the hands of the heroes, but even more massive technology out there to be discovered. Little of this tech is particularly new to a science fiction reader, but Reynolds deploys it in new combinations and in interesting ways; the wonder in the novel is much more about scale than about kind, and a reminder that sheer scale can still be amazing even after all the SF that’s been written before. (Of course, this does beg the question: After using ringworlds as merely materials in a larger project, and making galaxies disappear, can Reynolds come up with an encore in the theme of scale? It might be wiser if he doesn’t try.)

The “framing sequence” which opens each of the book’s parts is eerie but somewhat disappointing. It provides some insight into how the Gentian Line got started, and is also an allegory of sorts for the main story, but I found the connection between the two to be too tenuous to be really satisfying. I’d hoped for something more concrete linking the two stories.

But that sequence is a small part of the whole book, and the main story is much more rewarding. The focus is on political machinations and the mystery and suspense of the attack on the Line rather than on depth of character, but I also felt there was enough characterization to feel realistic. In particular, the loyalty of Campion and Purslane to Hesperus was at times touching, and Campion’s friction with the other shatterlings feels realistic. Although the narration alternates between the two, Campion always feels like the more interesting of the pair, probably because he has more foibles in his personality. The book might have had additional depth had it been written as a rite of passage or growth for Campion’s character, although that would have left out many excellent scenes which are seen only by Purslane.

The world building is excellent, as it usually is in a Reynolds novel: The sense of history and of a myriad of human cultures, and of their comings and goings as perceived by the Shatterlings is all very well portrayed. The Lines naturally feel a little superior to everyone else since they tend to outlive them, but are occasionally reminded that they’re not the only sharks in the sea, and they’re not perfect either. Though it takes a while for the mystery to draw out, there’s plenty of stuff happening and being revealed to keep the reader entertained; although the book is long, it’s rarely dull.

I found the ending to be a satisfying wrapping up of all the various threads, even if the final chapter did end rather abruptly. Reynolds also comes up with a satisfying rationale for the actions of some of the superhuman entities flying around, one which suggests that sometimes our fears are worse than the reality, but that we’re rarely willing to go out on a limb and risk finding out if that’s really true.

Although I didn’t find House of Suns to be quite as good as Chasm City, or its universe to be quite as richly textured as the Revelation Space universe, I still think it lands in the upper echelon of Reynolds’ novels. Although the sheer sense of wonder is its big selling point, it holds together as a story, too.

Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

Review of the novel The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds.

  • The Prefect

    • by Alastair Reynolds
    • HC, © 2007, 412 pp, Gollancz (U.K.), ISBN 0-575-07716-6

I realized while reading this book something that sets Reynolds apart from his high-tech brethren in the SF field: Reynolds’ stories are essentially grim suspense/horror tales, and their basic pattern is one of setting up a milieu and hinting at a variety of outre people, places, events, or other horrors which populate it, and then setting the story in motion. Consequently, the reader spends much of his time waiting for another shoe to drop, and in true Charles Addams fashion, Reynolds’ stories are full of more shoes than you expect. And since he tends to “play fair” with the reader, not pulling out some unlikely surprise at the last minute for sheer shock value, you know that the characters have a chance of getting through the novel, but they’re probably going to have to walk through hell to get there.

The Prefect is a prequel to the Revelation Space cycle of stories, occurring decades (maybe a couple of centuries) before the events which turned the planet of Yellowstone into the peculiar hell it was in those novels. Here, the Glitter Band is a ring of ten thousand space habitats orbiting Yellowstone, and Panoply is its law-enforcement branch, primarily tasked with guarding it from external threats to its existence (due to its uneasy symbiosis with the starfaring Ultras), and internal threats to its stability (people trying to subvert its democratic electoral system).

Tom Dreyfus is Panoply’s top Field Prefect, an exacting but fair and honest man who works some of the toughest jobs in the system. Eleven years ago, an AI named the Clockmaker threatened the survival of the Glitter Band. It was defeated, but Dreyfus’ wife died in the encounter, and he’s now fully committed to his job. His two partners have similar obstacles: Thalia Ng is the daughter of a man who was convicted of treason, while Sparver is a genetically-engineered pig, and thus the subject of much discrimination.

The book opens with Dreyfus’ team locking down a station which had illegally exploited a hole in the polling software, which Thalia is assigned to fix. While she is working on the fix, space station Ruskin-Sartorius is destroyed, and Dreyfus’ investigation suggests that an Ultra ship is to blame. The Ultras provide little insight into what happened, and Dreyfus’ only witnesses are three simulations of three members of the family from the station. With a little legwork, they track down communications with Ruskin-Sartorius to a remote asteroid and Dreyfus and Sparver go to check it out while Thalia goes to test her software fix on a few of the older stations.

All of this is the initial dance leading up to a powerful entity making a bid to take over the Glitter Band, and this is where Reynolds really exercises his suspense skills: Thalia gives us a short tour of the diversity of the stations in the Glitter Band while Dreyfus and Sparver engage in some forensic investigation. There’s no question that something big is around the corner, but the story still keeps moving forward even as the tension builds. The story is a series of puzzles for Dreyfus and the other characters, as they need to figure out the goals and motivations of their adversary, as well as how to stop it as it makes its move on the stations in the Glitter Band.

The characters in The Prefect aren’t the strongest in Reynolds’ arsenal, and they definitely take a back seat to the plot. While Dreyfus and Thalia each have some painful history behind them, it’s only an influence on their behavior, not a strong underlying motivation. Dreyfus, as the title character, embodies the best of Panoply, its efficiency and compassion, and is forced to weather the storm of his less-incorruptible peers and superiors, but he never feels truly flawed, and so he fills the role of a fairly traditional detective. Still, the main characters are all entirely likeable and that helps make the book enjoyable.

For those who have read Reynolds’ earlier books, there’s irony in that we know that Dreyfus’ efforts to save the Glitter Band will eventually be undone by the Melding Plague, but we still root for him to save this jewel of human civilization. The story comes to a surprisingly rapid – yet satisfying – conclusion, and I wouldn’t mind reading more about the era of the Glitter Band, but ultimately I think I enjoy the more downbeat era after the Melding Plague more. Perhaps there’s a story which can bridge the two periods.

The Prefect falls somewhere in the middle of quality among Reynolds’ books, being a solid detective story with a variety of interesting ideas backing it, but it doesn’t excel in either concepts or characters like Chasm City or Pushing Ice do. But if you’re just looking for an exciting high-tech tale, then look no further.

More about The Prefect:

Alastair Reynolds: Galactic North

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.

Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and Other Stories

Review of Alastair Reynolds’ short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Reviewing short story collections is hard, even when it’s a collection by one of my favorite SF authors. Reynolds in fact has two collections out this fall, of which this is the first.

Reynolds’ forte is telling atmospheric stories – often with strong philosophical underpinnings – which nonetheless qualify as hard science fiction. His stories therefore are usually pretty heavy stuff, but no less enjoyable for that. He works the edge of the “posthuman” milieu which has become popular these days, although he often write straight-up space opera.

My favorite story? Maybe “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, which takes place in a universe with wormhole travel among stars which humanity has taken advantage of. The wormholes seem to end at the edge of the Aquila Rift, but of course the universe doesn’t end there, so eventually someone ends up going beyond it, by accident. This story I think perfectly encapsulates the sense of otherness which is often present in Reynolds’ stories, and the sense of loss that seems to come with being immersed in the other.

Reynolds tends to write a lot of far-future space opera, and two stories in here occur in the same such universe: In “Hideaway”, a small remnant of humanity is on the run from the cyborg creatures which have taken over the species. Their backs to the wall, they end up in an unusual star system which tantalizingly contains the seeds of escape. It’s followed up with “Merlin’s Gun”, concerning the hunt for a weapon which might be used to defeat the enemy. Both tales leave some story elements hanging – deliberately – but it’s the setting and characters and their approach to their dilemmas which is what drives the stories: How far will you go in the pursuit of your goals, and what are you willing to pay to achieve them?

Reynolds provides illuminating afterwords to each story, and he observes that the future of reporter Carrie Clay is perhaps a rather nice one to live in. In “The Real Story”, she interviews the men (?) who first stepped on Mars, decades after they accomplished the feat. It’s a neat little tale of ambiguity and – again – sacrifice and loss. In “Zima Blue” she interviews the foremost artist of her age, and learns something about art, humanity and memory. Reynolds turns the neat trick of taking what seems (to me) like a trite central idea and dressing it up into a rather elegant story.

The story that perhaps best shows Reynolds’ penchant for grandiloquent explorations of the nature of the universe is – naturally enough – “Understanding Space and Time”. It begins as a “last man standing” tale of loneliness verging on madness, and ends on a too-large-for-mere-words scale of understanding reality. Both parts of the story are interesting, although not fully successful, to my mind. It’s quite a page-turner, however.

Of course, not all the stories grabbed me – not unusual for a science fiction collection. I think sometimes the atmosphere overwhelms the story, or maybe is the whole point of the story, and the piece doesn’t come together for me. I think this was the case in both “Enola” and “Angels of Ashes”, for instance. On the other hand, “Signal to Noise” is a straightforward character yarn about (just barely) parallel worlds, but I found it rather routine. None of these were bad, but they were a few notches below the stories above.

The limited edition contains one more story written specially for this collection, which is pretty annoying since I don’t have the limited edition. Hopefully “Digital to Analogue” will be collected in another volume sometime.

Zima Blue is a better-than-average short story collection, and if you enjoy Reynolds or like dark space opera, then it should be right up your alley.