In the notes on his title story of the collection Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds acknowledged the debt that story owed to Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man thusly: “One of the truly delightful things about science fiction is that it is far less about new ideas than it is about finding new ways to think about old ones. All you have to do is find a new spin, a new way of telling, a new truth to illuminate.”
Reynolds has always looked to the very edge of scientific research as he spins ideas in new directions, and his work is never less than excellently written and entertaining, and while throughout this new collection there are themes that have appeared elsewhere in his work, that does not mean the specimens here are better or worse, simply different, sometimes radically so.
For example, the motifs of water and the colour blue that anchored Zima Blue are also present in Fresco, a non-narrative piece depicting the sadness of an artificial lifeform archiving the loss of intelligent species throughout the galaxy, perfect in its simplicity and directness. Similarly, as jazz flowed through Century Rain, so classical music flows through the alternate history of The Receivers, a look at wartime technology through the eyes and ears of men who in peace may have had different destinies. Another tale, Viper, in which directed dreams are used to ascertain the true intent of a convict prior to his parole hearing, is reminiscent of A, B and C, an episode of The Prisoner.
The length of these varies from the few pages to the extended Nunivak Snowflakes, Reynolds’ first published story from 1990. The conceit of the tale, that time machines require unobtrusive calibration so as to never make their existence apparent, is unmistakably Reynolds, with innocuous references to “fish” suddenly taking on deeper and dazzling meaning when the context is revealed. Reynolds has not only a grasp of the furthest reaches of theoretical science but the practicalities in making them feasible, and here he gives Stephen Moffat a run for his wibbly wobbly timey wimey money a decade before that phrase was coined.
The collapsing world of The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter, where Angels fight in the sky and the only native tech is a wagon cart, feels like a setup for a much bigger story, and in many ways could be a dry run for Terminal World, published three years later. There are no questions over the provenance of Monkey Suit, however. “A lighthugger is a four kilometre spike of armour and ablative ice. That’s a lot of surface area to search for a lost crewman.” Almost a science fiction ghost story, with the modern equivalent of an apparition of a dead crewman returning to finish a task and warn his shipmates of danger, a trip to Revelation Space is always welcome for a reader, though less so for those who have to live there.
Reynolds has never shied from horror when the interface of technology and humanity collide uncontrollably, as evidenced back on Earth On the Oodnadatta, a tale of cryogenics, corporate takeovers and train hijacking in the Australian outback, and creative deaths are also order of the day in Byrd Land Six, where an experiment to circumvent what Einstein termed “spooky action at a distance” has resulted in a causality violation which resolves itself by isolating an Antarctic base from the rest of the universe.
Many of the stories here demonstrate Reynolds’ determination to take every paradox or controversial theory of modern science and turn it into a plot point, such as brane theory, featured in the cross dimensional Tiger, Burning which also manages to encompass Shakespeare, Forbidden Planet and a giant cat detective, though sometimes his innovation comes from a much more commonplace phenomenon, such as using piezoelectric light as a defence in Stroboscopic.
With his background in astronomy, deep space is where Reynolds has always done his best work, and there we encounter ramscoops and cyborgs in pirate kidnapping adventure The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice, and a more considered examination of the fear of the technological singularity in Soirée, where machines equal and surpass the achievements of man. Here, an offer willingly made by a robot to give up its emulation of humanity for the good of another recalls the sacrifice of Hesperus in House of Suns.
That novel is also gloriously reflected in Fury, an epic tale of revenge and justice spanning centuries and star systems with exotic species. This story of loyalty and betrayal between two sets of brothers brings us back to the theme of Zima Blue, that advanced technology will adapt and evolve its purpose, yet always remain true to itself.
Originally published as a limited edition when Reynolds was guest of honour at the 47th Boskone Science Fiction Convention, this collection illustrates the breadth of work of a prolific and imaginative writer, and the second edition, while more widely available, is still only likely to fall into the hands of those who actively seek it, but they will be rewarded for their effort.