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Epic Space Fiction by Alastair Reynolds


"QUANTUM SHOT" #861
Link - article and all reviews by Avi Abrams




"I want more space in my life!"

There is a simple solution to the above problem: go read some fiction by Alastair Reynolds - his eminently readable (as Adam Roberts even put it "disgustingly readable") novels will launch you into highly spacious environments, full of adventure, exploration and wonder... loads of wonder.


(top right image: art by Chris Foss)


Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading writers of modern space adventure, equally adept at epic novels and short fiction. An absolute must-read for all "hard science fiction" fans, though perhaps a little dry for those who like more conventional science fiction. A big portion of his work occurs within the Revelation Space universe, one of the better realized "Future Histories" in all of science fiction. Reynolds' style of writing can also be somewhat cold and impersonal, but it is ALWAYS entertaining. Blockbuster wide-screen special effects and breathtaking action are guaranteed in every single story, no matter where you decide to start.

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Alastair Reynolds
"Beyond the Aquila Rift"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
Zima Blue & Other Stories, 2006
--novelette : 2006 Locus award
--/ third place space sf novella DRB top lists


The mind-boggling scale of vacuous space is compounded here by a sense of being totally lost - the pilot in this story is certainly lost in space, but he's also lost in more ways than one; and Reynolds unveils these "degrees of separation" with the skill of a master magician. A few times the story would pirouette on its tail, sending you reeling into further categories of "lost" that you've thought were possible - but let me tell you, this particular happy reader welcomed every such jolt of disorientation with a grin of joy.

This is one of the most s-p-a-c-i-o-u-s novellas in Reynolds' portfolio, a great thing of wonder, and a sort of literary equivalent to "a mournful note ghastly ringing in the dark-lit halls of outer space".

"Beyond the Aquila Rift" is set in a future where interstellar flight is facilitated through a barely-understood (and long abandoned) system built by aliens: predictably, the system is plagued by occasional errors, sending ships far from their intended destinations, or utterly lost in space.

----------------------------------------------


(right image: art by Bence Kresz)


Alastair Reynolds
"Chasm City" (nv)

(Revelation Space series: 2)
© 2001, Gollancz /Ace
--sf novel : 2002 Locus /9
--novel : 2002 British SF W

--/ third place space sf novel DRB top lists


This novel is quite a different beast from "Revelation Space": it's darker in tone, unapologetic (and often unjustified) in plot twists, baroque in its structure and towering ambition. A reader might get in turn bored, shocked, confused, astounded, and perplexed... it is, however, a black obelisk of a novel, a vast achievement, a master work nevertheless. Think of it as a Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled mystery set to steampunk gears and the brooding lustre of China Mieville's novels, with an added layer (somewhere deep down) of vintage Philip K. Dick's angst. Its pacing and sudden plot twists reminded me of A. E. Van Vogt's approach to writing (which can be summarized as "a new revelation, or a new plot twist, every few paragraphs"). The first half the story tended to drag, however, and I almost wished for action to speed up, and for prose to display (maybe) a little more emotion. Still, it ended up to be an all-out cinematic trip, certainly worth the admission.

I have to say, many people will find the tone and setting of this novel somewhat depressing. Even with the occasional display Chasm City's extraordinary glamor and glitz, and plethora of unmistakable steampunk- and cyberpunk- wonders and references, still - the overall effect of doom and sheer cold-bloodedness of main characters would get to anybody (there is not a single good-nature human being in the story, for a long time). But guess what, all this turns out to be just an appropriate build-up to the final sentiments that Reynolds masterfully hides in the ending. There is Grace in this universe after all! And a deep yearning for things pure and innocent... While these things are hinted - only hinted! - in the novel, they work underneath to shape the characters and to usher in an acceptable (though still pretty convoluted) outcome.

The novel opens (literally) with a bang: the explosive destruction of an enormous space elevator structure, and a subsequent voyage to Yellowstone/Chasm City (which brings to mind some of the Jack Vance's baroque destinations), interspersed with flashbacks of a "Generation Ship" odyssey to another star. I was deeply impressed by Alastair Reynolds' development of his anti-hero, Sky Hausmann, in this part of the story: he is a tyrant in the making, a ruthless figure, a peek into dark souls of the likes of Stalin and Hitler. His is a fascinating progression of evil that's being justified in the name of an idea, in the end revealed as sheer lust for power. Many will find this character hard to stomach (there is even an appearance of a much-maligned Joker figure) - and yet... yet... there is a sort of the redemption lurking just outside the view, a possibility for a transcending change that cannot be explained, and can be only felt. I applaud Reynolds for not stating these things clearly, and for the subtle emotional nuances that break through the cold facade of this book's gritty plot... Well done.

There is much to be said about the Pandora's Box of visual delights in this novel, and I attach some works of art that (barely) touch on that splendor. One word of caution, though: nothing in this novel is what it seems from the start, so prepare to be astounded... after enduring the long, meticulous exposition in the beginning. Chasm City will grow on you... and then you will wander in the twisted jungles of its buildings looking for, and not finding the happy-ending, unless you can uncover a certain happy-ending inside of you. And that seems to be exactly what Reynolds was intending.



(art credit: Marcin Jakubowski, Mark Goerner)


----------------------------------------------

Nostalgia for Infinity... A perfect name for a starship to explore the outermost reaches of "Galactic North"




Alastair Reynolds
"Galactic North" (coll)

(Revelation Space series)
© Ace / Gollancz, 2006
--/ second place sf collection DRB top lists


This collection of large-scale stories (with three original story publications) positively oozes light years, strands of stars and latticework of nebulas - magnificently, it drips down clusters of insanely huge machinery locked in unknown, tremendous struggle, the likes of which we would never comprehend. In other words, it's the best collection of "new space opera"/ space adventure material to come out in a long while. Highly recommended.


Alastair Reynolds
"Galactic North" (story)
(Revelation Space series)
© Interzone, Jul 1999
--fiction : 2000 Interzone Poll /9
--short story : 2002 Seiun
--novelette : 2000 Locus Poll

--/ second place space sf story DRB top lists


The Greenfly Machines - terraforming gone bad! - devour the larger part of our Galaxy, while a group of unlikely survivors observes the event with minimal interest: they are more compelled to chase each other across light years and millennia, driven by an all consuming lust for revenge. Their characters are superficial, shallow to the point of being shadows; they are immaterial players in a larger cosmological farce, or rather a tragedy, of the Ultimate Futility of It All played on a "space opera" stage. The sense of time/space progression is unfailingly vast, imparted unto a reader with a vacuum-cold, neutron-heavy touch of a ruthless and skillful writer.

The Universe-spanning vistas in "Galactic North" are comparable to Isaac Asimov's story "Last Question", or to Olaf Stapledon's visions of phantom stellar civilizations. Reynolds pulls out all the stops and achieves mind-boggling results, which are nevertheless nested deeply in his "Revelation Space" universe (thus, "Galactic North" provides a much-needed sense of perspective to the whole series). The bit about space piracy in the story's beginning is pretty dramatic in itself, and serves the same purpose: to inflame titanic emotions, capable of burning their carnal fires through multitude of incarnations and across limitless time and space. Like someone said, "Reynolds is gazing into Infinity here". Yes, and he does not flinch a bit - but then again, this is purely imaginary infinity, a tame fictional thing.

----------------------------------------------


(original unknown)


Alastair Reynolds
"Glacial"

(Revelation Space series)
© Spectrum SF #5, 2001
--novella : 2002 Locus /15
--/ fourth place space sf novella


What a perfect title for a murder mystery concoction! Chilly in a most intriguing way, slightly morbid, it glimmers with Alastair Reynolds's barely hidden joy at writing such an orderly, distinguished space investigation story (as someone noted, Reynolds likes mysteries). While not as maniacally spectacular as other entries in this collection, this story is indeed a solid, competent example of the "sf mystery" sub-genre, much better than similar (and rather more famous) stories by Isaac Asimov.

The plot revolves around various mysteries inside a deserted human colony (of a period before events in "Revelation Space" novels, approximately around the same time as "The Great Wall of Mars"). Other reviewers noted that "The Great Wall of Mars" and "Glacial" are best read after "Revelation Space" and before "Redemption Ark", as they give a gripping account of Clavain's early years.

----------------------------------------------


(original unknown)


Alastair Reynolds
"Great Wall of Mars"

(Revelation Space series)
(prequel to "Glacial")
© 2000, Spectrum SF #1
--novella : 2001 Locus Award /14
--/ fourth place space sf novella


This is something very epic, as though written by Robert A. Heinlein in his Golden Period, but with a new gleam and shine; plus it has a huge dose of Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist ideas thrown into it for good measure.

Exciting action and thrilling visuals are a given, as we have come to expect from Alastair Reynolds. This novella is the starting point for the whole "Revelation Space" series, so its scale is still pretty small, confined only to the Solar System, but the initial conflict between Conjoiners/Demarchists (or are they Shapers/Mechanists ??) is already revealed in a very concise manner, introducing all the key characters (Clavain, Galiana, Remontoire...) - and starting them on a four-novel, thousand-page odyssey. Isn't it a great feeling, when you can gaze on a whole bookshelf of "Revelation Space" novels and know that even if you spend your whole time reading Reynolds, there is always going to be some more stuff to read?

The embattled walled City of Mars also reminded me of the Venusian City from Henry Kuttner's "Fury" series - with similar subdued militaristic drive and laconic writing. Good taste, good reading times - cheers, let's read some more!

----------------------------------------------


(left image: art copyright CGSociety, Pawel Lewandowski)


Alastair Reynolds
"Pushing Ice" (nv)

(Spican Structure # 1)
© Gollanz, 2005
--novel : 2005 Arthur Clarke Award
--novel : 2006 Locus Award /11
--/ second place space sf novel DRB top lists


A major space adventure that I've been hungering for. All the classic wonder and meta-galactic scale, all the tension and beauty of space exploration are here, plus believable human characters, and drama. Not ideal writing, mind you (a little dry - could welcome more polished, soaring style), but adequate enough to keep me enthralled for some time.

My review of this would be biased, I suppose, as most of the book's action unfolded inside my head, enhancing the prose (I am happened to be blessed with a vivid imagination), and the boundless vistas from this book will easily give Hollywood a run for its money. But first, it all starts as a gritty, tough adventure story, claustrophobic even: most action happens inside the ship chasing a runaway planet, while its crew feels trapped and entangled in their own petty fights. Then the book focuses solely on human conflict, and the evil corporate types start springing to life with astonishing clarity (perhaps Reynolds drew on his own experiences in a cubicle "Office Space" phase of his career?)

The perspectives and the landscapes begin to widen again, once our tough miners land on the artificial alien planet (which turns out to be Janus, the ice-clad moon of Saturn). And then the plot shifts into overdrive after this moon does not stop at the expected destination, but accelerates on, and on... to finally enter... a cosmological structure, which description would twist a human mind into painful knots, which only Reynolds can safely to unravel.

It is all on a grand scale, folks, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series (if it is planned, of course)

----------------------------------------------


(left image: space art by A. Sokolov, Russia, 1970s)


Alastair Reynolds
"Revelation Space" (nv)

(Revelation Space series: 1)
© 2000, Gollancz / Ace
--shortlist : 2001 Clarke
--first novel : 2001 Locus Award /2
--sf novel : 2001 Locus Award /22
--novel : 2001 British SF Award

--/ FIRST place sf series
--/ second place space sf novel
DRB top lists


The vistas here are wide and gorgeous, the ending is pure joy, the canvas is colorful and satisfying. This novel starts in intriguing, if somewhat slow-paced way, showing us an archaeological dig on the other planet - but once we learn what kind of immensity this particular archaeological dig uncovers, the action picks up speed and the marvelous adventure gets underway. Various planetary environments are introduced and a weirdly twisted space-faring cyber-culture is described, getting a different treatment from Bruce Sterling's similar "Schismatrix" series. Lack of the hyperdrive - instantaneous FTL travel - in "Revelation Space" universe makes for a truly mind-boggling contemplation of stellar distances and unforgiving time spans, and it also introduces certain harshness in how the characters would live and function... faced with huge gaps of traveling through the void. Thus, the full flavor of "Generation Ship" epics from classic 1940s science fiction stories can be felt once again (this time mixed with edgy cyberpunk philosophies). In a word: this novel is a trip.

And it makes sense, too, when you combine it with imaginary sensory experiences. One can almost see oneself boarding a colossal and beautiful spaceship, armed to the brim with deadly weapons (capable of destroying whole star systems), battling the ghosts, mysteries and conspiracies along the way and arriving at the weirdest destination possible (the novel does end with a bang, I'm not going to spoil it for you). This is a grand space adventure that will stay with you for years, an ice-cold thrilling vehicle... And yet, this is my only complaint: that the novel feels cold to the heart like a surgical instrument, devoid of any particular warmth. One might argue that the detached tone of the narrative perfectly fits the immensity of space and the life/death decisions that characters will face there. Think of it as an epic story machine, covered in chrome, with tangled spikes of brooding menace sticking out here and there - launched upon a grand voyage with not much thought given to side sentiments (though you'd wish it lasted longer than the 500 pages alotted to it).

There are plenty of other influences here: certainly Iain M. Banks, William Gibson, even early Heinlein (seen in the epic sweep of its story) - and also a striking similarity to Larry Niven's stories in its mind-bending finale. Yes, it could have been paced more engagingly, with fewer chunks of exposition, but the reader knows he is in competent hands: Alastair Reynolds is capable of delivering hard science and plot twists with equal flamboyance.

As a side note, I find it hard to forget the mental image of a vast weapons bay inside the Ultra's spaceship (which comes complete with a ghost captain, by the way), where the dread star-destroying guns darkly loom and sleep... waiting for a senseless command to wake them. You can tell, this is the stuff the best classic space operas are made of, stuff that never gets out-of-date. Awe-inspiring.

----------------------------------------------


(left: "Interzone" illustration by SMS)

Alastair Reynolds
"A Spy in Europa"

(Revelation Space series)
© Interzone, Jun 1997
--fiction : 1998 Interzone Poll /10 (tie)
--short story : 2003 Seiun Award

--/ third place space sf story DRB top lists


"A Spy in Europa is an entertaining mixture of hard sf, James Bond, and Jaws."
"Inventive, colorful adventure steeped in interplanetary politics as rival factions vie for control of Jovian space."
(Locus)

All good reviews can't convey the sense of discovery I experienced upon reading this story - this was my VERY FIRST encounter with Alastair Reynolds's fiction. At first, I liked the underwater caper and the "Thunderball"-like spy intrigue, being "duly" entertained by highly visual descriptions and the overall sense of a cool confidence. It's as though Reynolds has read ALL the best examples of space adventure story on his weekends (or downloaded them straight into his cortex) and decided that he is going to "ace" them all before lunch on a lazy afternoon. Effortless, smooth writing, good control of the plot, intricate world-building - all displayed here, in one of his earliest published stories. Plus there is an interesting twist in the end.

After reading the last page, I shook my head in disbelief and announced to my wife that I've got a new "MOST FAVORITE" sf writer... Her reply was "How many "my most favorites" do you have? Must be some crowded company". She's right of course. Reynolds is good at what he does, but the beauty of the fantastic literature is that it is so diverse and so full of flavors and styles, that there is always room for another "your one and only" favorite writer.

Here is a pretty neat excerpt from the interview in Aurealis: Australian SF:

AUREALIS: I've read you also enjoy spy-novels and this again comes out in many of your stories. "A Spy in Europa" is probably my favourite of this style of story. You intrigue us with a whole mess of espionage and double-crossing, only to turn everything on its head for both the reader and the protagonist. There doesn't seem to be anything sly, or of pulling-the-rug on the reader about this. The ending is rational and logical, you just don't see it coming. Is this an effect you consciously set out to achieve when you write a story? The ability to surprise a reader just when they think they've got it all figured out?

ALASTAIR REYNOLDS: I guess that's the effect I'm striving for with that specific kind of story, certainly. Whether I hit the mark all the time, or any of the time, is another matter entirely. I know people who disliked A Spy... intensely, because they felt it was implausibly contrived. Again, you write the stories you think of. With that one, I got the ending nailed down pretty early and worked back from it. It was actually one of the easiest stories I've ever written: I think I started it on a Friday evening, and had it done by Sunday. Most times, my short stories take at least three to six weeks.

----------------------------------------------


(left image: art copyright: John Berkey)

Alastair Reynolds
"Weather"

(Revelation Space series)
© Galactic North, 2006
--/ third place space sf story DRB top lists


This is as straight-forward story as you can get: a simple space piracy potboiler, with classic set pieces and predictable special effects. None of the above constitutes a bad thing, though. Space piracy stories historically have been frowned upon by all kinds of critics, dismissed en masse as juvenile and unoriginal. Well, what can we say? other than: pirates are supposed to have a bad rap, unless they are of the kind that "don't do anything".

More often, though, pirates and their lifestyle represent the most romantic environment that a writer can possibly come up with. Problem is, NONE of the great space piracy stories were properly reprinted, or marketed, and so they are virtually unknown as a result. Have you read (or even heard about) Edwin K. Sloat's "Beyond the Planetoids" (1932)? Or Edmond Hamilton's "The Three Planeteers"? I bet you have not... but now you can at least read this little "potboiler" to get a good taste of what "piracy of the spaceways" adventure is all about.

A perfectly simple storyline is all that is needed here: bravery, thrilling battles, testing of the corsair's wits and space engines, with an added exotic (though not really romantic) interest and a geeky fascination with huge unfathomable space drives - all very straight-forward and cute. Very pleasurable narrative from a writer who's not afraid to enter forbidden (even if deemed to be "cheesy") territories and to bring out cool cinematic adventures.




Article and all reviews by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.


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YOUR COMMENTS::

1 Comments:

Anonymous Max said...

Thank you, this is exactly what I'm missing when I turn on the TV these days (decades?) - oh well, printed letter will do perfectly fine too; so thanks again for the suggestion, and of course - Merry Christmas! :)

___  

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