Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds

Night Shade, 2006, 280 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59780-079-2

The stories in this Alastair Reynolds collection have two things going for them when compared to the rest of the author’s work: They’re short, and they’re not part of his Inhibitors future history.

Given that the vast majority of Reynold’s work so far is made of thick fat novels all taking place in the Inhibitor universe, this may sound like damning with faint praise. But my problem with Reynolds’ fiction is simple: His novels are far too long, and they keep happening in a universe that I don’t find particularly interesting. In fact, some of my favorite Reynolds stories so far (Chasm City and The Prefect) and quasi-standalone stories that explore outskirts of the Inhibitor universe. Reynolds is a capable author, but he’d be even better if he showed some control over his prodigiously lengthy output.

Considering those objections, Zima Blue seems tailored for optimistic nay-sayers like myself. A collection of Reynold’s non-Inhibitor short stories so far (the Inhibitor short stories are in Gollancz’ Galactic North) they offer a look at what he can do with a smaller freer canvas. It’s an ideal introduction to his work, and it may even please those who couldn’t stand the verbiage of his novels. Every one of the collection’s eleven story is accompanied by notes giving a glimpse into Reynolds’ life and inspirations. An introduction by Paul J. McAuley completes the content.

The two stories that bookend the collection offer a good way to go from the Inhibitors stories to the more varied universes in this collection. The last story, the titular “Zima Blue”, is a meditation about memory and art placed over an imagined universe that teems with possibilities. It’s a companion to the first piece “The Real Story” in that both take place in a fairly optimistic universe in which a journalist named Carrie Clay goes around trying to understand celebrities. (In his story notes, Reynolds hopes to write more of those stories, but warns us not to hold our breath.)

It’s not the only pair of linked stories in the collection: “Hideaway” and “Merlin’s Gun” share a common character and a baroque space-opera setting, but I regret to say that neither particularly grabbed me. Perhaps the next time I re-read them…

Given that most of Reynolds’ short-stories so far have been published in the United Kingdom, most of the stories collected here will be unknown to American readers. Of the two exceptions collected in Hartwell and Cramer’s year’s-best anthologies to date, only “Beyond the Aquila Rift” is reprinted here, and it’s just as good now as upon a first read –perhaps even more so, given the big twists. (The other year’s-best story, “Tiger, Burning”, was published too late for inclusion.)

One story is original to this volume. “Signal to Noise” is a strong and memorable narrative of parallel universes and lost lovers, a rare near-future story that shows a promising direction for Reynolds should he choose to step back from the far-future space opera that has been his specialty until now.

The other standout piece in the book, “Understanding Space and Time”, neatly encapsulates its goal and appeal in its title. I suspect that this is one of the pieces that immediately serve to distinguish those who love SF for its aspirational attitude toward knowledge from those who just like the stuff for other reasons: It’s both overwritten and simplistic, but I’m reasonably certain that it will leave other SF fans thrilled with a glimpse at the unknown.

On the design side of things, Night Shade Books should be praised for having been inspired by the design of Reynolds’ Gollanz/Ace books to deliver a cover that fits well on the shelf with the rest of the author’s work. It’s a small detail, but the kind of service that makes Night Shade such a dependable publisher both for readers and authors. Zima Blue is the kind of single-author short story collection what too often gets forgotten by major publishers, much to the detriment of everyone. If it can manage to make me look more favorably upon Reynold’s works… imagine what it can do for you.

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