Permafrost – Alastair Reynolds

In the not too distant future, a cascading ecological apocalypse has ended all food production. Humanity is down to stored rations, and there is no future. Mathematician Valentina Lidova is recruited to a remote research facility, where scientists are attempting practical time travel into the past, with a twist.

Mr. Reynolds’s fluid style makes the narrative of this bleak novella shine despite the grim setting and themes. The concept of inertia as history is changed, as well as the fact that characters’ memories are altered mid-paragraph due to chances, makes things potentially quite confusing for the reader, but that is not a problem here.

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds – Alastair Reynolds

This massive collection contains most of Mr. Reynolds’s short stories and novelettes, which have formerly appearaed in other publications. Some are set in the Revelation Space universe, but most are standalone. Thousandth Night is a prequel of sorts to House of Suns. It is by far the weakest of the entries, overlong and tedious like most of the book it connects with. The average standard is very high, as one would expect from Mr. Reynolds. Most deal in some way with the nature and meaning of existence, as well as the spectre of deep time. In Mr. Reynolds’s worlds, faster than light travel is impossible, so it may take thousands of years to travel between stars, making any sort of coherent and stable interstellar society almost impossible. Vainglory, and the charming Zima Blue, are their hearts commentaries on the nature of art and legacy.

As ever with this author, the prose is polished, the characters are deep and interesting, and the concepts are often awe-inspiring. A nice read in parts and as a whole.

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

Elysium Fire (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency II) – Alastair Reynolds

Some time after the events in The Prefect/Aurora Rising, a new crisis is brewing in the Glitter Band. Random citizens are having their brains “fried” by their electronic implants. As Dreyfus and the other Panoply operatives investigate the links between victims, they find links to an old and very distinguished Yellowstone family.

While a solid and enjoyable novel, this one lacks the panache of “The Prefect”. The mystery feels contrived and doesn’t lead to any sort of even half-epic conclusion. That being said, Mr. Reynolds’s prose is a pleasure to read as usual, and the characters are interesting and engaging.

The Prefect AKA Aurora Rising (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency I) – Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect was republished as Aurora Rising in order to identify it more as the beginning of its own series than as tied to the Revelation Space series. The series do share the same Universe, though this book is set in a much earlier era.

The setting is the Glitter Band, a swarm of thousands of orbital habitats around the planet Yellowstone. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect for Panoply, a police force tasked with ensuring voting rights are respected, including investigating and punishing voting fraud. The habitats of the Glitter Band are as varied as they are many, from tyrannies to utopias to all manner of strange types of government. An investigation into voting fraud leads Dreyfus and his small team to a flaw in the voting system, and then all hell breaks loose.

While the setting is hard science fiction, the plot is in large part police procedural, and the characters could have been picked from any group of archetypal police investigators and functionaries. Dreyfus himself is the stereotypical dedicated detective with a tragic past. His assistants Thalia and Sparver are, respectively, the spunky and energetic young tech whiz and the stoic, solid sidekick. His boss Aumonier is the classic experienced police chief. The trope works very well for the novel, allowing the reader to immediately grasp relationships while navigating a completely new and strange world. The plot starts as a relatively simple police mystery, but as events unfold, the magnitude of the crisis becomes vast, encompassing the entire system. The ghosts from Dreyfus’s past, and indeed society’s past, come back to haunt the present, with some clever twists.

The vignette Open and Shut, available for free on the publisher’s website, serves as an epilogue for the novel.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Sixty-year old Gaunt, a billionaire in his previous life, is woken up from the hibernation he entered in order to sleep his way to a future where medical technology would have evolved towards clinical immortaliy. But the future is not what he expected. He finds himself on a massive platform in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, as part of a caretaker crew for billions of sleeping humans.

This short story started as notes for a novel, and has a very interesting premise. As post-apocalyptic scenarios go, it is certainly one of the most original I have read. Mr. Reynolds’s masterful prose makes the whole thing flow smoothly.

Pushing Ice – Alastair Reynolds

In the second half of the 21st Century, the ship Rockhopper is the base for a crew of hardcore ice miners. Much like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien or the workers of the Deep Core in The Abyss, these are not space heroes but no-nonsense blue-collar worker types. The company sucks them dry but they get the job done.

Janus, a small inner moon of Saturn, is observed to be moving out of its orbit, seemingly of its own power. Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to intercept what can only be alien artifact. As it nears Janus, Rockhopper is caught in a gravitational field from which it cannot escape, carrying it along for years until it reaches a vast alien artifact soon dubbed The Structure.

Mr.  Reynolds anchors the narrative on two strong women, Bella Lind and Svetlana Barseghian; fast friends who fall out as they disagree on how to deal with the challenges faced by the marooned crew of the Rockhopper. The novel jumps smoothly between discrete events, sometimes separated by decades.

The enigma of The Structure is disturbing on many levels, but before being able to even hope to probe it, the small contingent of humans must ensure their very survival. And so, in an isolated corner of an alien place they know nothing about, humans must thrive despite their factional nature and penchant for disagreement. Despite its often intimidating scope, this novel is a joy to read. Ingeniously plotted, epic in scope, and yet intimate in its exploration of humanity.

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

Fura Ness and her sister are adolescents on a little planetoid, growing up under an overprotective widowed father whose business fortunes are poor at best. They escape from home to make money crewing on a ship plying the spaceways for treasure left over from fallen civilizations. But on their first journey, things go horribly wrong. Fura vows revenge on the pirate captain who destroyed her life.

The style of this novel verges on Young  Adult, and the story itself, while enjoyable, is nothing that stands out. The setting, however, is fascinating and inventive. The star system is full of wordlets and space habitats, having been “occupied” at least thirteen times over millions of years by various empires and polities. The current civilization sustains itself partly on picking up loot from asteroids protected by periodically inactive force fields. The loot can be anything from decorative items to ancient and powerful weapons. I was somewhat disappointed that more aspects of this setting were not explored, especially the mysterious origin of the “cuoins” used as currency.

Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

SlowBulletsIn the final days of a devastating war, the conscript soldier Scur is captured and tortured for sport by a war criminal. She is left for dead but manages to survive. She is on her way home, in hibernation on a starship, but on awakening discovers that the ship is malfunctioning and in orbit around an unknown planet. It turns out that thousands of years have passed and human civilization has fallen. On the ship, factions of “dregs”, criminals and misfits from the war, must now make peace.

A dark, melancholy tone pervades this novelette. It is soon clear that Scur is writing down for posterity her memoirs of the difficult time that defined her life. While hope remains, indeed must prevail, she knows that she will not see the dreams of her band come to fruition in her lifetime. More interesting is the fact that those who remain are the outcasts and misfits; those that the rest of civilization wanted out of sight. As so often with Mr. Reynolds, the vastness and frightening nature of the Universe makes the reader feel small and frightened. By gradually unfolding the story through the memory of Scur, the scary truth is only slowly revealed, but the fact that it is a scary truth is always hinted at.

Full disclosure: My copy was kindly provided by Tachyon Publications.

4Rosbochs

On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children II) – Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildren2OntheSteelBreezeAfter the events in Blue Remembered Earth, the stars are open to humanity. The mysterious alien artifact Mandala, on the planet Crucible twenty-eight light years away, becomes the destination for a swarm of huge spaceships constructed from hollowed-out asteroids. Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the protagonists of the first book. She has undergone an unusual procedure, creating two clones of herself and implanting neural machines that synchronize memories. Chiku is three individuals, but also one through the shared memories. One copy, known as Chiku Red, departs to recover great-grandmother’s lost spaceship, fast leaving the vicinity of the Solar System. Another, Chiku Green, joins the asteroid ship exodus on its way to Crucible. The last, Chiku Yellow, remains on Earth. The latter two are the main protagonists. As the distance between Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow increases, so does the communication lag, and the story jumps decades forward in time to keep the rhythm, skipping seamlessly between the two to emulate their shared memories.

Even more than in the first book, the main theme is about the nature of intelligence. Can machine and organic intelligences co-exist? Another major theme is the nature of aging. As life extension is more and more perfected, senescence becomes a rare thing, to the point the withholding of anti-aging procedures is used as a punishment for one of the characters. How does this affect humans?

Unfortunately, this installment suffers from the same issues as the first book. The book seems overlong and the pace is ponderous. The story itself is not very powerful, serving more as a backdrop to a philosophical discussion.

3½Rosbochs

The Six Directions of Space – Alastair Reynolds

TheSixDirectionsofSpaceIt is one thousand years since the founding of the Mongol Empire, and it now spans both the Earth and a vast galactic empire. A secret agent is sent to a remote sector to investigate problems with the interstellar transit system used by humanity; a system left behind by an ancient race.

The setting is interesting and the twist is well executed. An entertaining novella.

3Rosbochs

Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children I) – by Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildrenIBlueRememberedEarthThe story is set in the second half of the 23rd Century. Mankind has colonized Mars and the Moon, and has expanded industrial concerns into Trans-Neptunian space. Earth, long ravaged by climate change and pollution, is slowly recovering. In most of human society, the “Mechanism”, a sort  of benevolent big brother, and compulsory neural implants have practically eradicated violence and crime. Robots and proxies (advanced telepresence), are everywhere. The Akinya family from Tanzania has been instrumental in the expansion into space, or more accurately the family matriarch, Eunice Akinya, a legendary deep space explorer and pioneer industrialist. As the book starts, Eunice has just died. For the last sixty of her one hundred and sixty years, she has been living in enigmatic isolation in the Winter Palace, a habitat orbiting the Moon. As the family gathers to scatter her ashes, a loose end appears. A previously unknown safe deposit rental on the Moon. Geoffrey Akinya, one of Eunice’s grandchildren, is reluctantly roped into retrieving the contents. What he finds will start him and his sister Sunday off on a treasure hunt to the remote wilderness of the Moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

The concept of making the African continent prominent is an interesting one. Today, the common western view of Africa is that of a lost continent continually ravaged by poverty, war and disease. In this book, Africa has become a center of high civilization, and Swahili is one of the lingua francas of humanity. The setting is intricately designed, with robots, proxies and neural interfaces prevalent. This brings about some interesting aspects of the “what is consciousness” discussion, as advanced autonomous machine intelligences are one of the potential futures envisaged. On the other hand, the group known as the “Pans” sees evolution of humans themselves as the way forward, in order to avoid humans becoming sessile with proxies doing the exploration and the discovery.

The story itself is not the strongest part of this book. It is adequate enough though, and the characters follow its meanderings more as a way to explore the nature of humanity and consciousness than to actually get to the payoff at the end.

This is a long book, and while I don’t mind per se, it is rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds writes with a smooth and easily read style but I still think the book could have been shorter. The protagonist Geoffrey is rather interesting; initially an unwilling actor in events who is slowly drawn in until he drives them.

3½Rosbochs

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days – Alastair Reynolds

This small format hardcover (almost as small as a paperback) contains two novellas: Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. Both are set in the Revelation Space universe. Diamond Dogs is much less epic than his novels, being more of an idea piece. Although Reynolds’ prose is tight and elegant as ever, some of the passages seem just a bit too stilted. I think the short length of each novella (only about 110 pages) may be cramping the author’s distinctive style.

Even so, Reynold’s universe is still a very cold, enigmatic and frightening place which cares not a jot for humanity. I expected him to solve the riddle of Diamond Dogs, but Reynolds has chosen to let the artifact therein serve a more sinister purpose. Very elegant and more than a little spooky. Turquoise Days is more of a vehicle to give interesting tidbits of information on the Pattern Jugglers (an alien life form). Although the main character is engaging, and the story well rounded, Diamond Dogs is definitely stronger the stronger of the two.

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds

Scary in it’s placing of humanity firmly at the bottom of the Universe’s pecking order, this series of books contains some pretty big concepts. Worth reading just for the descriptions of cultures and aliens. Watch out though, Reynolds is not afraid of making the Universe a scary place. I refused to read Redemption Ark close to bedtime. I would just lay awake and shiver at the thought of how huge the universe is, and how short-lived and fragile we are.

  • Revelation Space – Cool, pure SF. The last few chapters give an inkling of what is to come in future installments, but the story also stands well by itself.
  • Redemption Ark – The sequel to Revelation Space, in which many questions are, err, resolved, or then again maybe not. Several hundred years in the future, the Inhibitors are back after eons, Their objective seems to be to eradicate sentient life. Scary scary scary.
  • Chasm City – The schizo prequel to Revelation Space, which scales back quite a bit from the epic back story and gives up a very convoluted plot of a man and his quest for identity. Good reading but does lose itself a little in the identity crisis of a very screwed up psyche.

There is a sequel to Redemption Ark, called Absolution Gap, but I have never gotten around to it. While I am sure it is great, I am also sure it won’t be very cheerful.