Galactic North (2006) and Zima Blue and Other Stories (2006). Scales has been published online in two places and has been included in two anthologies. It has yet to appear in one of his collections, which is one of the reasons why I picked it.
Scales is one of those stories that only works in the short length. Reynolds writes it in a circle so to speak ending where he started, and uses that to deliver a very unsettling tale. It opens with the main character waiting in line to sign up for the military and gain citizenship (a distinct echo of Starship Troopers here). As a tangible reminder of why this is necessary, a captured soldier of the enemy, a reptilian looking alien whose species has attacked the Earth unprovoked, is held in a cage nearby to be tortured by the people waiting in line. Soon after signing up, the main character finds out the war is not quite what it seemed.
There are echoes of Heinlein in this story but also a bit of The Matrix. The way the main character leaves his body behind and progresses onwards very much reminds me of that movie. Beyond the choice to sign up there is no going back though. There is no red pill or blue pill, the main character is not presented with a view of what awaits him. The way that what happens to him appears inevitable makes this story very disturbing. The combination of a main character who is both blind and powerless to shape his future, and willing to go along with whatever is presented to him, is very troubling indeed.
Dark futures are not uncommon in Reynolds' work but in this story he takes it very far even by his standards. It is a well written tale. I appreciated the structure of the story, how it progresses and then comes full circle. It is too brief to really do much with the main character though. He is a pawn and that is all there is to it. As such, it may not satisfy all readers.
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Originally published: The Guardian website, June 23rd, 2009 (audio)
Read in: Lightspeed Year One (2011), edited by John Joseph Adams
Story length: short story, 1931 words
Available online: The Guardian (audio), Lightspeed