Tag Archives: Alastair Reynolds

Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds

<em class="BookTitle">Pushing Ice</em>, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2005, 457 pages, £14.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07438-8

My traditional objections to Alastair Reynolds’ fiction have been twofold: First, too many of his novels take place in a single future history that gets increasingly less interesting. Second; far too many of his books are overwritten to the point of tediousness. The rest of his work is pretty good, but endless Inhibitors stories still make up more than half of his bibliography. Fortunately, his most recent books have taken steps against the issue, either tackling new futures, or coming in under 350 pages. Pushing Ice is halfway OK: It’s still far too long, but at least it offers something new. Not coincidentally, it’s almost the best thing that Reynolds has written so far.

It starts twice in ten pages: first, in a distant future where humanity has conquered hundreds of solars systems. Then, again, in 2057 as a plucky crew of comet-mining operatives is hired to go and check out Janus as it runs away from Jupiter. But accidents keep happening, and before we know it the crew of the Rockhopper crash-lands on Janus as it accelerates away from the Solar System. From near-future hard-SF, Pushing Ice turns into a high-tech Robinsonade, then other even stranger configurations as relativistic effects take hold. The structure of the novel is such that the prologue ends up not merely being a framing device, but a plot arrow whose impact is felt two-thirds of the way through.

For experienced SF readers, one of the best things about Pushing Ice is the way it pushes through the future, taking us from a relatively conventional hard-SF setting of blue-collar space work to the exotic weirdness of a far future shared with a variety of alien species. The structure of the story is such that there are quite a few chills in recognizing future technology delivered, almost as an afterthought, within the hands of human characters still recognizably like us.

That set of characters is uneven, but they have their moments of infighting. Decisions made by characters in position of power have consequences that go beyond immediate repercussions: Over and over again, the Rockhopper crew reacts, takes sides and argues about their fate, trying to survive despite what they receive as leadership failures. The novel eventually switches focus entirely as one character is taken out of service and replaced by another. Bit players come and go, sometimes in fairly gruesome fashion: Reynolds has never been known as a particularly light writer, and if Pushing Ice isn’t as relentlessly gloomy as his other work, it’s still heavy-going at times, pulling plot dynamics out of interpersonal clashes and the cyclical nature of entire civilizations. Betrayals happen so often that it’s a wonder anyone trust each other by the end of the story. (…and they don’t entirely do.)

Where Pushing Ice could have been better is in tightening up the screws: There’s a tremendous amount of nothing-happening within these near-500 pages, and the well-worn nature of Reynold’s ideas (big, but hardly innovative) are such that the novel could have been written in more or less the same way at any point during the past thirty years: But Pushing Ice as published in the 1980s would have been considerably shorter, and the pace would have accelerated through the story, not dawdled along unevenly like it does so often here.

But Pushing Ice does manage to make me more receptive to Reynolds’ most recent and upcoming novels. (Much as his short-story collection Zima Blue proved that he was at his best when writing shorter fiction not set in the Inhibitors universe.) I’m not going to give up on the Reynolds two-strike rule, but as soon as something either short or standalone comes up, I’ll let you know.

Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds

<em class="BookTitle">Zima Blue</em>, 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.

Century Rain, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2004, 532 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-575-07691-7

After a series of grim and lengthy space operas set in the far future, Alastair Reynolds breaks from “the usual” with Century Rain, a novel largely set in an alternate 1950s Paris where the Second World War never happened. Fans of the author shouldn’t worry about the different setting, because not much has actually changed about their man’s prose: the tone isn’t necessarily more cheerful and the novel is once again far longer than it should be. Despite initial expectations, this is routine material from Reynolds.

At first, we’re allowed some doubt. After all, Century Rain isn’t a part of Reynolds’ best-known “Inhibitors” series. Here, the Earth has been devastated by a nanotech plague, and there’s a serious conflict between two post-humans factions regarding what should happen to the human race. In the first few chapters, archaeologist Verity Auger sees her expedition to the surface turn horribly wrong as one of her teammates is killed. Disgraced, she’s offered a chance to move away from the spotlight for a while: someone powerful at an undisclosed location wants her expert services.

Gradually, Verity discovers that scientists have found a pre-Nanocaust alternate Earth, and that her expertise is needed to find out what has happened to one of the agents already installed in place. Teaming up with a local detective, she discovers hints that there may be another post-human group at work in alternate Paris, and that the other side may be building a weapon of unknown capabilities. But things are about to escalate. Stuck on another world without access to any advanced technology, how will Verity manage to learn the truth and go back home without bringing back the enemy with her?

Century Rain plays a long time with a mixture of futuristic action/adventure and alternate universe noir. It does seem perilously close to a conceit at time: dealing with travels to alternate universes, it’s always tempting to ask “Why just one? And why that one?” The richness of the alternate Paris setting is enough to make one guess that Reynolds first set out to play with a certain jazzy detective fiction archetype, and then wrapped up that particular atmosphere in the more familiar SF rationale. Fans of 1950s Paris will be charmed out of their socks; those who aren’t so fond of the city may have to cling to the more generally familiar action/adventure plot featuring killer children and mysterious engineering projects. Century Rain begins and ends in high-tech settings, so don’t think that this is “just” an alternate-universe story.

Like all of Reynolds’s other novels so far, Century Rain is perfectly adequate Science Fiction marred by a lack of concision. There is little reason for this novel to crack the 500-page mark: a thinner, slimmer, faster edit of the novel would be easier to read and leave a stronger impression. As it is, Century Rain is often spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for Verity to travel to the alternate Earth. Waiting for Verity and her detective sidekick to agree to collaborate. Waiting for the clues to fall in place. Alas, those part of Century Rain are very familiar: making us wait for their inevitable occurrence just prolongs the reader’s growing exasperation.

But once everything has been revealed and all the elements are finally in place, Reynolds once again shows why he’s one of the most reliable mid-listers of British Science Fiction. His use of genre elements is fluid, his prose and characters are up to contemporary standards, his post-human political conflicts are interesting and his narrative delivers a satisfying conclusion. Not everyone will be so taken by his alternate Paris, but the novel itself is enjoyable provided one has a lot of time to read through it all.

Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2001, 524 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06878-7

There are killjoys out there who will argue, at length, that the modern word processor has killed the novel as it ought to be. Those spoilsports will keep saying that the ease with which modern writers can just keep typing and editing without physical consequences (that is: sore fingers and the consumption of draft paper) has made it too easy to overuse words. These entirely fictional straw men (er, “older curmudgeon whose opinion I claim to have heard”) will tell you that real men once hacked out fifty-thousand words in stone tablets with a chisel, and that even Hemingway was a big softie for using a typewriter.

It’s a silly argument, but it’s hard not to think about it when looking at Alastair Reynolds’s brick-sized novels. Helped along by Gollancz’s habit of using thicker paper stock, Reynolds’ books intimidate well before they’re cracked open. So many words! The story inside has to be important: Other writers have described the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in fewer pages!

Yet Reynolds’ novels are nothing but good old-fashioned space-opera with modern polish. Solid thriller plots with SF twists and alien locales. In Chasm City, this means another man on the run from dangerous criminal forces: hardly the stuff that justifies a book an inch and a half thick.

Of course, that means that you get a whole lot of thrills for your money. Expect to spend at least a week of reading time in Tanner Mirabel’s company as he first pursues an assassin, then finds the chase turned against him. His trip eventually leads him to a nightmarish alien environment: the eponymous Chasm City in which humans are prey and stranger forces lie beneath the mist… and that’s not even counting the other story interleaved between Tanner’s run: What could possibly be the link between those subplots? As Chasm City goes on, little blips in the narration lead us to a bigger revelation that conveniently twists the usual certitudes of a thriller.

It’s long, it’s overwritten and it can get pretty exasperating at times, but Chasm City is a solid middle-of-the-road SF thriller. Those looking for a good example of genre fiction could do much worse: this one has good dollops of sex, action, violence and grimness: Reynolds isn’t afraid to pull punches, and the atmosphere of his books has little to do with the shiny futures once imagined by Science Fiction. The prose is verbose but well handled. Although a shorter book may have strengthened our grasp of the novel’s universe (rather than diluting it with sheer verbiage), this one does a pretty good job at carrying the reader from start to finish. The events keep piling up, Tanner is a tough protagonist, and the mystery of the intersecting plotlines is enough to keep anyone reading.

Readers of Reynold”s debut novel, Revelation Space, will get a related novel that’s just as competent, dark and intriguing than its predecessor. Despite my constant harping about the length of Chasm City, it’s more focused than Reynolds’ first novel, with more consistent bursts of action. It amounts to a prototypical example of the “New British Space Opera” at the turn of the century. There is strong kinship here with other writers such as Richard Morgan and Neal Asher: Reynolds may use twice as many words in making his atmosphere noir and his aliens squishy, but the feeling is similar.

All isn’t lost, though: Latter Reynolds novels, post Absolution Gap, show clearer signs of self-control –at least when it comes to page length. His last two novels, for instance, don’t even crack a comparatively slim 460 pages. (The Prefect is even down to 410 pages.) Since the length of Reynolds’ work is just about the only thing worth complaining about, you can bet that I’ve got his entire oeuvre on my shelves… even though I’m understandably reluctant to pick up one of his tomes when shorter books beckon. But we’ll get there eventually. Hopefully before retirement age.

[January 2008: I’m not even going to review Redemption Ark at length, as disappointed as I am with the way Reynolds has blown up a perfectly enjoyable space opera into an interminable slog. The conclusion wraps it up together decently, but there’s some serious fat to be trimmed off this novel.]

Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2000, 476 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06876-0

Any novel with the gall of putting “The first great science fiction novel of the century” on the cover upon publication in January 2000 is setting itself up for huge expectations. Things get more interesting when you realize that it’s a first novel for British SF writer Reynolds. Portentous announcement, or mere marketing hyperbole? Let’s find out.

The first hundred pages of the novel are both promising and disquieting. While Reynolds shows a comforting writing ability and packs a high density of concepts in a few pages, he deals with at least three different story at several different times. Though things eventually converge, they are cause for some confusion, especially when the narrative jumps in time.

Eventually, though, a story emerges, one of a dedicated (maybe mad) scientist named Dan Sylveste, who is much, much more important than he initially seems to be… or at least that’s why an elite assassin and a spaceship crew are willing to cross light-years and realtime decades in order to get him. Of course, Revelation Space wouldn’t be a grandiose space-opera without a few alien races, terrible galactic dangers and shattering betrayals. Those come in time.

Fortunately for its own good, the book’s pace accelerates in time, and while it might take some work to get going through the first half, the rest of the book is as compulsively readable as anything published in the genre. Even clocking at nearly 500 dense pages, Revelation Space almost feels too short at times. The intricate detail in no way detracts from the pleasure of reading once all the necessary pieces have been assimilated by the reader. There is a lot of setup, but also a lot of sustained payoff. (Though the action often skips too quickly over dramatic moments, then settles down for long stretches of exposition. First novel technical faults.) Interactions between the characters are complex and multi-layered, often changing dramatically over time. Gadget freaks will find a lot of those, and even more socio-technical concepts scattered here and there.

This might be Reynolds’ first novel, but he already shows most of the skills required to compete with some of his best contemporaries. Indeed, Revelation Space has much of the same feel than recent novels from the Brit school of Hard-SF as practiced by such authors as MacLeod, Baxter, MacDonald or Banks. No wonder if many formerly-disappointed fans are coming back to the genre because of these writers: It’s nothing short of a revitalization of the smart space opera / Hard-SF sub-genre that they’re bringing forth.

As an SF novel, Revelation Space is very very good. Good enough to be, yes, “the first great science fiction novel of the century.” As a first novel, it’s so accomplished that it’s almost scary. I was lucky enough to find a British edition only a few months after its initial release in England and well before its release in North America. You’ve been warned; don’t miss it.