Galactic North collects most of Reynolds' short fiction in his Revelation Space universe (I reviewed Absolution Gap, one of his novels in this setting, a few months back). The collection presents eight stories, more or less in chronological order, covering just about the entire time line the author has revealed so far. Spanning from the early 23rd century to approximately forty thousand A.D., we get a look at most of the factions described in Reynolds' longer work. Individually most of the stories don't quite pack the punch to make them excellent but collectively Galactic North offers a very nice insight in some of the unexplored parts of Revelation Space.
The collection opens with The Great Wall of Mars. The story details Nevil Clavain's encounter with the conjoiners and explains how he became one of them. I was particularly interested in this story. Clavain is one of the major characters in the Revelation Space trilogy and one of the most interesting ones as well. I must admit this story was a bit disappointing. Once the outline became clear it was quite predictable. It does explain a thing or two about the relationship between Clavain and Galiana, as well as a bit of Felka's story. For those who have read the novels this story still has a few things to offer.
We meet Clavian again in Glacial. It tells us of a visit to a previously colonized world by the Conjoiners on their first explorations outside the solar system. Something has gone very wrong on the planet, all the original colonists died except for one man. He was able to freeze himself in time so his body would be preserved for future visitors. The Conjoiners wake him to hear his story but he fails to convince Clavain. Science fiction is littered with puzzles like this. I liked the concept and the way Clavain goes about solving the matter. Perhaps not the most original story but I must admit I failed to solve it before the end of the story.
Next up is A Spy in Europa. It's the only story in this collection I have already read. It is available online here. As the title suggests it is a spy story and it shows us Demarchist society in a bit more detail. Like most of the stories in this collection you will get more out of it if you have read at least some of the novels but this particular story stands pretty well on it's own.
In Weather we shift to the Conjoiner side of things again. This story explores their views on humanity and what happens if they are separated from their collective consciousness. It also reveals one of the secrets of the mysterious Conjoiner drives. I think this is the best piece in the collection. Emotionally it probably has the biggest impact. It has a bit of an open ending. This one leaves you wondering what happened to the main character afterwards.
The Ultras, humans adapted to the rigours of sub-light speed space travel, star in the next story. Dilation Sleep deals with the interactions between a crew member and an artificial intelligence on a long voyage through inter stellar space. The crew member spends most of the journey in reefer sleep, a kind of cryogenic suspension, but he is woken early because of some emergency. It turns out his medical expertise is necessary to save one of the other crew members from a melding plague infection. Or so he thinks... I liked this one a lot. Reynolds has a way of turning space ships in to haunting places for the increasingly paranoid people who crew them.
Grafenwalder's Bestiary is set in the Rust Belt some time after the melding plague abruptly put a halt to the Demarchist's golden age. Society collapsed but there are still ultra rich individuals and some of them have strange interests to spend their money on. A particular group of these people thinks of themselves as collectors. They collect rare and exotic lifeforms and put them on display to dazzle their rival collectors. All very illegal since sentience is no guarantee you will not be collected. The whole process is rife with shady deals and covert operations. Not surprisingly not everybody in this world is what they appear to be, as one of the collectors is about to find out. Conceptually a very interesting story. It's a nice blend of science fiction and horror with an absolutely gruesome revelation at the end.
The next story, Nightingale reminded me a bit of Clarke's Space Odyssey books for some reason. In the wake of a civil war a group select group of specialists boards a hospital ship presumed destroyed in the war to look for a war criminal. The ship turns out to be alive and kicking, it is not going to be an easy extraction. Maybe Reynolds takes a bit too much time to build the tension but he certainly builds a haunting atmosphere. There's more than a bit of horror in this story as well.
The concluding story is the one that gave the collection its name. Galactic North covers almost forty thousand years in forty pages. One of the surviving crew members of a pirated ship sets out in pursuit of the pirates. A voyage that will take far longer than anyone expects. The jumps in Revelations Space history are interesting but I do feel it gives away something of the end Absolution Gap. Personally I would not recommend reading it before the novels.
All things considered this collection contains a number of stories that are more than worth reading. Especially of the Revelation Space fans this collection has a lot to offer. I'm not sure if it would make a good introductions to Reynolds' work however. In the frame of his future history most of these stories work pretty well but you get a lot more out of it if you are familiar with the books. A solid collection by one of the leading authors of space opera. I still haven't read all his Revelation Space related material but after reading Galactic North the missing works are high on the to read list.
Title: Galactic North
Author: Alastair Reynolds
First published: 2006