Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of "Galactic North" by Alastair Reynolds

The front cover of Alastair Reynolds 2006 Galactic North boldly declares the author to be “A master singer of the space opera.”  Cracking it open and discovering ships battling in the black of space, futuristic technology and weaponry, and intercultural politics and prejudices progressing in good and evil fashion, the book does indeed seem to personify the sub-genre.  Galactic North is a collection of short stories, many of which fill gaps in the Revelation Space mythos.  Like many short story collections, however, quality is uneven.  Also, despite that several of the stories do stand alone, the collection is best appreciated with a familiarity of Reynold’s created universe.

“Great Wall of Mars” – Revealing the origins of a certain story in Revelation Space, Clavain’s diplomatic mission to Mars does not turn out as planned.  Metallic versions of Herbert’s sandworms, terraforming, and brotherly enmity appear to disjoint his hopes.  For those who haven’t read the RS series, the story reads in forced fashion, one event clamoring over another just to fill gaps.

“Glacial” – Another Revelation Space story, this one, however, can stand alone.  Unfortunately, it’s legs are weak.  Clavain and crew encounter an abandoned base on one of Jupiter’s moons where all the personnel are murdered, except one.  In explaining why only one survived, Reynolds attempts to build a profound morale dilemma.  But by resolving it simplistically - in consequentialist (pragmatist) vs. inconsequentialist (relativist) fashion - expect not to be enlightened.

“A Spy in Europa” – Perhaps the weakest in the collection, this story could have been lifted from the pulp magazines of the 50s and 60s with none the wiser.  Part undercover ops, part alien thriller, none of the plot milestones develop realistically.  Clashing with the previous story’s moralizing, death in this story takes on no meaning.  Magazine pulp, no more, no less.

“Weather” – Moving from the worst to perhaps the best of the collection, this story sees Reynolds finding form.  The characters act like real people, the conflicts are human – or at least as human as they can be with a Conjoiner involved – and theme is well developed.  The story has impact and proves that sci-fi is one of the best genres for discussions on cultural prejudice.  Though set in Revelation Space, this story works independently and can be enjoyed as such.

“Dilation Sleep” – A non-Revelation Space story (and one of the first Reynolds ever had published), this and the previous story vie for best of the collection.  “Dilation Sleep” tells of a man woken from cryogenic sleep and the weird, dreamlike experience that results.  Featuring great descriptions of biotechnology in a human environment, this story is highly reminiscent of Dick and Gibson.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” – As the title implies, the main character is a creature collector, the more exotic the better.  A commentary on animal rights and respecting the rights of all living things, Reynolds leaves nothing to the imagination, literally and figuratively, in driving home his point.  (Not directly a Revelation Space story.)

“Nightingale” - The story’s name is derived from the hospital ship a handpicked crew of ex-soldiers are contracted to extract a wanted man from.  Weirder things happening with each step deeper into the abandoned ship, the slosh of cloned organs and tissue samples they encounter along the way are peanuts compared to what awaits them in the last room.  Highly reminiscent of Neal Asher’s works, this story can be read independently.

“Galactic North” – Abandoning the linear, straightforward style used to this point, the eponymous story attempts to create a time-lapsed mythology of Irravel and Markarian, as well as establish the origins of Remontoire.  Unable to be enjoyed without a knowledge of Revelation Space, this story is uneven and feels like filler otherwise.

Reynolds’ weaknesses continue to play themselves out in Galactic North.  Problems include: overhanded moralizing, readers being lead by the hand through the plot one baby step at a time, dialogue serving plot only, moral buttons being fat and obvious (sadism, justifiable revenge, irrevocably evil bad guys, etc.), plot developments being telegraphed, and political alliances that are black or white.  However, like a tech-ier version of Star Wars, there are some great pieces of imagination tucked away in this collection, as well as in Revelation Space as a whole.  Reynolds’ literary aspirations may not climb high, but he certainly delivers when it comes to pulp storytelling, wonderful gadgetry, and the possibilities of space and technology.  Further commendation should be given him for his inclusion of environmental, social, biological, and other scientific issues as background elements.  Fans of Peter Hamilton, Richard Morgan, Iain M. Banks, and Neal Asher will absolutely enjoy Reynolds’ work, but I would recommend Galactic North only to those up to speed on their Revelation Space storylines.

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