Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Thousandth Night/Minla's Flowers

They called them Minla’s Flowers.

Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers is a gorgeous book. The artwork (for both stories) is excellent, and the text is nicely spaced out. Of course, simply being pretty is rarely good enough to necessitate a purchase. In that department, my mild obsession with everything Alastair Reynolds no doubt helped a bit. There’s plenty to like in his writing. He can write strong characters, both in very dramatic (Chasm City) and very realistic (Pushing Ice) ways; he is one of the absolute best world builders I’ve ever read; his explanations of mind boggling physics are enough to make me forget how incompetent I am at basic science; and his plotting is fast and filled with twists.

Despite all this, I’m always apprehensive when I pick up Reynolds, and Minla’s Flowers is a perfect example of why. It’s not that the ideas are inferior – I’m unsure whether Reynolds has ever thought of a concept that’s less than brilliant – but, sometimes, the execution leaves them floundering. See, Reynolds is always an intellectual pleasure. If you think about almost any of his stories or concepts, you’re amazed. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always succeed in crossing the gap and being a visceral pleasure as well.

The novella is primarily about viewing a person’s life through snapshots. Well, alright, there’s some other stuff. A ship crash lands, an inevitable doom is slowly coming, a people have to go through hundreds and hundreds of years of scientific progress in a century, etc. Really, though, this is the story of Minla. Merlin wakes from his cryogenic sleep once every decade or so, and each time he meets a changed Minla, as she does what she believes is necessary to save her people.

The concept is interesting, and some of the questions raised quite though provoking, but the snapshots are too rare for us to ever really get to know Minla. We can appreciate the changes, yes, but there’s no gut reaction when we go from seeing her as a girl to as an elderly woman, kept standing by a mixture of a cane and her own determination. In the same vein, we’re never invited into the society of the Skylanders, and we never grow to really sympathize with any of the characters outside of Minla and Merlin.

Thousandth Night, on the other hand, is certainly not a disappointment. House of Suns was one of my favorite science fiction novels, but it has the same problem that all tales of lost glamour have: sometimes you want to see the grandeur, not the ashes. Thousandth Night fulfills that desire perfectly, taking place thousands of years earlier than House of Suns and featuring the Gentian Line in its prime.

We get to attend a reunion, in which each member of the Strand contributes their memories to the collective pool, recounting their experience of the last two hundred thousand years. Of course, the problem with perfection is a marked lack of strife, and so some things pretty quickly begin to go awry. Over the course of the story, we get to solve a mystery, see a space battle, and witness Campion and Purslane embark on the character arks that wouldn’t reach their conclusion until House of Suns.

The problem with a novella that fills in so much background, however, is that I’m unsure anyone who isn’t familiar with the other text would get nearly as much enjoyment from it as I did. With no prior knowledge, the Gentian Strand might seem a bit too powerful, and the characters – though not flat here by any means – don’t truly become worthwhile without the bigger picture.

Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers is a collector’s item through and through. If you want to read everything that Reynolds has written, or if you were as intrigued by House of Suns as I was, this collection is well worth picking up. If, on the other hand, you’re just getting started on Reynolds, wait until you’ve read (and loved) his other stuff before looking into this one.

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