Sunday, January 1, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Scales - Alastair Reynolds

A new year starts with an Alastair Reynolds review on Random Comments. The man has written dozens of short stories so there is plenty to choose from. For a more detailed look at his short fiction check out the reviews of the collections 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.

Reynolds takes us from the very physical confrontation with the captured alien to ever increasing levels of abstract reality. The war is fought on planes of existence, for lack of a better word, that most people never imagined existed. It distances the character ever more from to brutal reality of what is going on in the universe as we perceive it. He does so without ever questioning or stepping back to gain a wider perspective of the situation. In a way, he is the perfect soldier, single-minded in his purpose to kill the enemy, flawlessly carrying out orders. He finds enemies behind enemies, and eventually sheds everything that makes him human.

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.

Story Details
Title: Scales
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Language: English
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
Awards: none
Available online: The Guardian (audio), Lightspeed


  1. Thanks for this review and for drawing attention to this story. I was inspired to write my own, complementary, review:

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