Friday, March 23, 2012

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

 I just finished up this short story collection by my favorite former ESA research astronomer, Alastair Reynolds.  Reading these all in a row was an interesting experience, since as it turns out I’d read most of them before without really paying attention.  Out of the eight, I believe that five of them had been collated in Gardner Dozois’ yearly anthologies, which I’d read at a time when I hadn’t really been that aware of who Reynolds was and hadn’t read any of his other Revelation Space novels.

But now I’ve read the Revelation Space trilogy, and the two stand alone novels, and the side novellas, and so I actually knew what was going on this time.  Well, that’s perhaps unfair.  These stories are actually quite good, which is why I remembered them in the first place, but it was very interesting to come back to them with a better understanding of the back story.  For instance he’ll mention the Demarchists as a faction, but depending on the story he might not explain that they use neural implants to perform real-time polling and maintain an anarchic society.  Or, if he does, there isn’t necessarily the space to go into all the implications of what that entails, like the study of their golden era in The Prefect.  There’s also not as much background about the strange, sharp trading spacefaring Ultras or the hive-minded Conjoiners, nor is much explained about the hyperpigs or why all their dolphins are raving psychotics.  Interesting background detail, and it makes perfect sense in retrospect.

Most of the conflict in Revelation Space dealt with the encounter between humanity and the Inhibitors, a quasi-malevolent machine race which wipes out starfaring species.  I say quasi-malevolent because they’re not mustache twirling supervillains exactly, they simply have an more-or-less orthogonal sense of morality to anything humans would recognize and they’re trying to make it easier for everyone to survive the Milky Way’s collision with the Andromeda Galaxy – in three to five billion years.  They think long term.  (There’s some indication that the Inhibitors are beginning to glitch and slide somewhat into outright villainy by the time that humanity encounters them.)

Most of the these stories don’t deal with anything quite so dramatic, but instead deal with more human concerns.  In fact, some of the stories even take place in the Sol system (although none take place on earth), which isn’t something gone into much in the rest of the Revelation Space universe.

The stories, as far as I can tell, are arranged roughly chronologically by their occurrence, with the possible exception of “Galactic North”, which spans the vast majority of the Revelation Space timeline and then far beyond it.  So “Great Wall of Mars” begins (appropriately enough) on Mars, in the not-too-distant future.  This is an interesting choice, because it doesn’t match the publication or writing dates, meaning that some of the stories are less developed than others.  I believe “Dilation Sleep” was the first written, and in the afterward Reynolds says that he didn’t really have the backstory worked out then but decided to leave it the way it was.

I liked the majority of these stories, especially the first two, “Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial”.  These deal with Nevil Clavain, a character from the novels, showing how he first got involved with the Conjoiners and detailing some of his adventures in the meantime.  These are really good traditional hard SF stories, and “Glacial” adds something of a mystery element.  There’s lots of good characterization, possibly even more than in some of the novels, and good resolution.

I mentioned in my review of Revelation Space that Reynolds has something of a predilection to throw in unpleasant characters in his writing whose horribleness doesn’t really seem to serve much purpose.  In this short story collection, there’s also a bit of that, and the stories that I didn’t like as much tend to go for Twilight Zone-style nasty twist endings to people who deserve it.  In “A Spy in Europa”, the main character is a secret agent for a faction called Gilgamesh Isis who goes around murdering people and generally causing havoc.  In “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”, the story follows a security consultant who is really a total bastard and collects sentient beings.  In both of these cases the guy gets a suitably horrible punishment (and ironically enough they were on opposite sides of the conflict).

Normally I wouldn’t be against nasty twist endings quite as much, although they’re not my favorite and they can seem a little cheap and telegraphed.  The real reason to object in this instance is that “Nightingale” does it so much better.  This story starts out like a standard military SF setting and quickly shifts into a horror story, inflicting pretty bone-chilling results on people who don’t necessarily deserve what happens to them.  In comparison, the other two twist-ending stories don’t hold up as well.

Then there’s the eponymous “Galactic North”, which may have been a prototype for House of Suns and also involves a relativistic chase over unfathomable lengths of time.  In this case it also serves as an overview for the Revelation Space universe and follows the progress of the Greenfly, which the protagonist may have unwittingly released and which eventually destroys the entire galaxy by mistake.

Oops.  Talk about the ultimate kick in the teeth. 

I think it’s supposed to be hopeful because some people eventually escape, but since the Greenfly can follow them forever it seems like sort of a downer ending.  Well, Reynolds is all about confronting the unfathomable, and that’s about as hostile and unfair as it gets.  So if you don’t mind a bummer ending this is a worthwhile collection.

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