Sunday, January 3, 2016

Zima Blue and Other Stories - Alastair Reynolds

A new year on Random Comments traditionally opens with a review of one of Allastair Reynolds' books. This year I picked his short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories. The first edition of this collection was published in 2006 by Night Shade Books. In 2009 an expanded British edition appeared from Gollancz. I have read the Gollancz version of the collection which includes four additional stories. The stories in this collection are all set outside his Revelation Space universe. Most of the short fiction in that universe can be found in the collections Galactic North (2006) and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003). Several of the stories are linked though. The collection contains the three Merlin stories for instance, as well as two stories featuring the character Carrie Clay and two stories set in a many worlds interpretation of Cardiff.

The collection opens strong with The Real Story (2002), the first Carrie Clay story. She is a journalist chasing the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. One that went horribly wrong but turned into a heroic tale of survival. The crew disappeared shortly after but is rumoured to still be alive. It's a story about survival mechanisms, about the creation of legends and about the burden they put on the people that are the source of legends. It's heroic and tragic at the same time. Emotionally very powerful.

Beyond the Aquila Rift (2005) features an abandoned alien transport system that enables travel faster than the speed of light. Nobody really understands how the system works. It is highly reliable but every once in a while something goes wrong and a ship ends up in an unexpected place. The Blue Goose is such a ship and its captain has a hard time dealing with it. This story reminds me of Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977). Beyond the Aquila Rift is a bit of a mindfuck, constantly pulling the rug from under the main character. He deals with issues of guilt but also has problems accepting his situation. It makes clever use of a first person perspective to keep the reader guessing.

The next story is the oldest in the collection and one of the very first stories Reynolds managed to sell. Enola (1991) deals with artificial intelligence. It features a warmachine that manages to evolve beyond its original programming and function after it becomes apparent there is no reason to fight on. Going beyond design and/or physical capabilities using extensive modifications is an idea that Reynolds would use later on. In the afterword he professes to be fond of this story but compared to the other material in this collection it is not a particularly strong piece.

Signal to Noise (2006) and Cardiff Afterlife (2008) are two linked stories, bases on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an idea that Reynolds uses in other stories as well. In these stories it is possible to briefly make contact with alternate realities that have just branched off from the timeline of the observer. The further these futures drift apart, the harder it gets to maintain contact.  In Signal to Noise the main character's wife is killed in an accident. He gets to spend a week with her in a different reality before that door closes forever. It's a very sad tale, with a bitter sweet ending. Cardiff Afterlife is a much shorter piece. It gives us a brief look at a Cardiff destroyed by a terrorist attack. A very relevant theme these days. It is so brief it doesn't achieve the depth of the first story in this setting however. Reynolds' short fiction tends to work better if it's long.

The next three stories, Hideaway (2000), Minla's Flowers (2007) and Merlin's Gun (2000) are linked as well. They are the kind of signature space opera that most readers associate Reynolds with. Stories set on the vast canvas of space, in far futures, usually featuring technology that Arthur C. Clarke would think of as magic. They are presented by internal chronology in the collection. Of the three, Minla's Flowers is by far the strongest. It's a tragedy in which the main character Merlin arrives on a planet that has just reached the stage where aircraft have begun to appear. He knows that in a few decades the planet will be destroyed. To save the people on the planet, technology will have to develop to the space ages fast.

Early in the story Merlin meets the young girl Minla, whom he presents with an exotic flower every time they meet. As the story progresses and Minla ages, she develops into a leader who will sacrifice millions to help a handful of people escape the approaching catastrophe. Characterisation is usually the weaker element in Reynolds' novels but in this collection he manages to hit the bull's eye a few times. The relationship between Minla and Merlin is very well done. This story may well be the strongest in the collection.

At this point I felt the collection was running out of steam a bit. The next two stories didn't do much for me. Angels of Ashes (1999) is a story that mixes religion and quantum mechanics. The religious part turns out to not quite be what one of its priests expects. A cynical view on prophets I guess. Not really my cup of tea. Spirey and the Queen (1996) is the only story in this collection I had read before. It was included in John Joseph Adams' anthology Federations (2009). It's full blown space opera in which we encounter artificial intelligence based on social insects. It's a fairly fast-paced pieces, with plenty of interesting ideas on space exploration, war in space and robotics. An entertaining read but not the strongest in the collection.

Understanding Space and Time (2005) is one of the longer pieces in the collection and in my opinion one of the highlights. It a story about a man stranded on Mars. He is forced the watch as the population on earth is wiped out. When his last companion on the station dies, he realizes he may well be the last human left alive.Just when it looks he has gotten himself killed in a pointless trip outside the station, aliens arrive to rescue him. It's a story about madness, loneliness and isolation but also one about seeking understanding. Structurally, I liked this story best. Reynolds end the story where he started, albeit millions of years later. The process of expanding his mind to probe the mysteries of space-time ever deeper and then going back to his origins runs parallel to a theory in cosmology that predicts than the universe will fall back in on itself again. I wonder if Reynolds had than in mind when he wrote it.

The final three stories in the collection didn't really grab me. Digital to Analogue (1992) is one of his earlier pieces. It mixes music with a new disease that spreads though certain sounds. Seen though the drugged and increasingly desperate main character, I found it to be a confusing read. Everlasting (2004) is the only story in the collection that isn't strictly speaking science fiction. It uses the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but only to illustrate the unstable state of mind of one of the main characters. It leaves the reader with the question what if he was right? In Zima Blue (2005) we end where we started the collection, with journalist Carrie Clay. This time she meets with one of the galaxy's most famous artists who is not quite what he appears to be. It's a story about art and artificial intelligence and the question of they will be able to learn to be creative. I didn't time the artist was as interesting a character as the astronaut in The Real Story.

Zima Blue and Other Stories offers a good overview of what Reynolds has produced in the 1990s and 2000s outside the Revelation Space universe. There is some of his signature big canvas space opera but also a few pieces that show he can write more varied material than that. As with most collections, I didn't like all stories it contained equally. On the whole it is a solid collection though. One that fans of Reynolds' novels will appreciate. Most of his short fiction from after 2009 remains uncollected. Maybe it is time for a new collection. I would certainly be interested in reading it.

Book Details
Title: Zima Blue and Other Stories
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 455
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08455-1
First published: 2006, 2009

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