(2009 expanded edition) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, viii + 404 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08405-6
Back at the beginning of the 20th century Alastair Reynold's novel Revelation Space burst on the scene, meanwhile we (Concatenation) were migrating from being a paper print vehicle with short reviews to the internet (which we realised soon after allowed us lengthier comment). Back then Tony Chester said of Reynolds, "that he’s worth looking out for in future." With hindsight we can now say of Tony's suggestion 'never a truer word'. Reynolds has proven himself to be a master of space opera and up there rubbing shoulders with the likes of Iain Banks taking space opera boldly where no man has gone before… (or something like that). So here we are the best part of a decade on and we have his second collection of shorts (I do not count Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days as that consisted of two novellas and so was not a shorts collection). He has though one previous collection of 'Revelation Space' stories: Galactic North which we have reviewed both here and here. By now, if you are one of our regulars or have checked out these links, you will realise that we like Reynolds' SF. Indeed so apparently do you for he has accrued, and is accruing, a growing readership. Of course for science fact and science fiction Concateneers Reynolds has extra value in that he is an SF writer with a background in science.
Though he is best known for his novels and shorts set in the 'Revelation Space' universe he has written some non-Revelation novels and shorts. This collection is a gathering of some of this other work.
However before we get stuck in to this collection, you need to know that this first came out back in 2006 in the US: one sometimes forgets that European writers – especially Brits – get considerable profile on the other side of the Pond. However over here we can be thankful for the wait as this 2009 Gollancz edition has three extra stories ('Minela's Flowers', 'Everlasting' and 'Cardiff Afterlife') plus a thoughtful introduction by Paul McAuley. In short, this is the edition to get.
Now to be quite frank, there really is little point giving you short teasers for each of the stories as all you really need to know is that there is not a duff one among them. It soon becomes clear, from the interesting author comments between stories, that Alastair Reynolds (as has any writer) had his lean times with many rejections. A lesser writer might have used the opportunity of a collection to palm off past unsold stories onto their readers: an act that would only be excusable if the stories complemented part of a cannon of work already published, hence hopefully valued (such as 'Revelation Space'). Conversely stand-alone material needs a commissioning editor's validation: readers tend to forget that, while for every £1 and author makes the publisher may make more only after a thousand or so copies of the book have been sold, but they will also have spent two or three times this getting the book in front of prospective readers' noses. Such investments are neither trivial nor made lightly. Commissioning editors (as opposed to the proofing kind) are therefore useful filters for both publishers and readers alike.) With this collection all the stories have previously seen the light of day in respected SF magazines or a themed anthology edited by someone else. Of course even with a commissioning editor's earlier stamp of approval, it is possible with disparate material for the quality to be a little varied. In the case of Zima Blue you will be pleased to learn that the quality on average is high and the standard deviation low (though don't ask me about the units let alone to do a chi-squared on the individual tales).
All you do need to know is that all the stories have a hard science reference or are hard SF,and indeed many are space opera of Banksian (or should that be 'Banksiain') proportions. Having said that you may feel my neglecting my duty if I do not give you at least the briefest of introductions to the stories. So here we go:-
The Real Story
Decades later a reporter manages to track down the first person to set foot on Mars, but has he been unhinged by the experience… (The reporter in question also appears in 'Zima Blue' the story at the collection's end and so provides the volume with matching brackets.)
Beyond the Aquila Rift
The problem for space crews in using the interstellar-jump transit-point system left behind by long-gone aliens is that occasionally it can go wrong. When it does interstellar and galactic scales can become exchanged…
A future with civilization recovering from a mechanical war sees a little girl have bad dreams. Could these be more than just nightmares?
Signal to Noise
This yarn come straight from is Everett land with multiple parallel universes, each slightly different to the one next door. What if you could briefly visit these? For someone whose wife has just died the chance to spend a few days in a reality where she still lives cannot be missed. This tale is one of the few in this collection set in the comparatively near future on Earth. Nonetheless it still has sense-of-wonder in its exploration of identity and opportunity.
Set a few years on from the previous story, the governmental applications of being able to monitor parallel Earth's where events pan out slightly differently have clear applications. Some universes have timelines that may see a terrorist attack or alternatively see a forthcoming attack foiled. Those in our timeline can learn from these. With such heads up the authorities can act. But what does this mean in terms of free will and state control?
The cyborg 'Huskers' came from near the Galactic core bent on exterminating humanity. One human ship is fleeing a Husker force. Onboard Merlin is trying to get a faster than light drive to work. Then a Husker force is seen ahead. The humans need somewhere to hide… With this tale Alastair Reynolds tells us he is coming close to 'Lucasesque' space fantasy. Here actually it is more Larsonesque as this story (together with the next two in the anthology) owes more to Battlestar Galactica (but let's not go there as George (Star Wars) Lucas' studio attempted to sue Battlestar's back in 1979/80 for ripping off the space opera idea…) Anyway, 'Hideaway' is a great yarn.
Merlin stumbles across a planet that has a civilization that is rebuilding itself following a Husker attack. However it is divided into warring factions. Should Merlin use his technology to help?
Merlin is trying to track down an ancient weapon he can use against the Huskers. He has a hot lead but in the course of his journey encounters a survivor from a Husker attack.
Angels of Ashes
On Mars an acolyte is summoned to the deathbed of the founder of his religion. What divine insight will be shared…? Now if there is a theme other than space opera to this collection then it is one of many parallel worlds and this story fits in with the idea of a multiverse. Of course this is familiar territory for SF writers and if you want an example of a very different treatment of the self same kernel of an idea at the heart of 'Angels of Ashes' then check out Robert Charles Wilson's 'Divided by Infinity' that appeared in the anthology Starlight 2 (1998, Tor US) edited by Patrick N. Hayden, and also Wilson's own anthology The Perseids and Other Stories (2000, Tor US): it was a Hugo Award finalist.
Spirey and the Queen
A space war in another system is not what it seems…Here Reynolds packs a concept into a short story that would for other writers see a novel.
Understanding space and time
A plague has wiped out the human population on Earth. On Mars one of the last two survivors in the Mars base dies, so leaving just one survivor. Is he going mad, but Elton John appears as a recreation hologram but strangely interactive? To keep sane the survivor decides to set about understanding space and time… This is a wonderful novellete, full of the usual Reynolds sensawunda but with a quiet charm. Positively delightful.. Meanwhile the concept underpinning the earlier 'Angels of Ashes' makes a brief appearance.
The concept underpinning the earlier 'Angels of Ashes' is the basis for this tale but this time the ending is different. Set in the present day, a friend makes a journey in the dead of night following a call from a longstanding pal who may be about to commit suicide…
Our reporter from the first story in this collection is now in the far future, ageing having been largely conquered as has interstellar travel. She is hot on the trail of an artist who uses a shade of blue called 'Zima Blue' but why? The artists last work may explain matters combined with an interview, if she can get one.
So there you have it. Now if you wanted to know what an awesome galactic perspective looks like packaged as short stories in a book, then all you need is Reynolds' Zima Blue. You won't need much else but a comfy chair would help.
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