Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alastair Reynolds - Deep Navigation

Though I haven't had the opportunity to discuss his work as often as I'd like, I've never made a secret of my absolute love for Alastair Reynolds. As such, I rather unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to read this collection of fifteen of his stories (dating from all through his career, including his very first published piece) when it was rescued from its horrific price tag on the used market by a second edition.

One of the things that most struck me about Alastair Reynolds' work, reading him for the first time since Terminal World in early 2010, and after having spent much of that interim immersing myself in the Weird Fiction of Thomas Ligotti and others, is Reynolds' own connection with the weird. Of course, I'm hardly the first to raise such a connection. Reynolds himself discusses it in the now-famous initial internet discussion of the New Weird, archived here. He writes that The New Space Opera, as he calls it, can't ever be as weird as the NW [New Weird] unless it becomes the NW itself. This is because the New Space Opera will always exclude anything it can't rationalise.

Now, I'm always a bit hesitant to disagree with a great man like Reynolds, especially when it's about his own work, but I don't think that's accurate. It's true that The New Space Opera can never be as aesthetically or superficially weird, yeah. It can't ever directly visit hell. But, that's not to say that it can't be just as intellectually and thematically weird as anything written by China Miéville, Lovecraft, or any other; it just approaches it from the opposite direction. Instead of birthing nigh unimaginable strangeness through the fantastic, as is the standard approach, what Reynolds does (to tremendous effect, I might add) is follow the rational to its logical conclusion, or farthest extrapolation, and then show us the thousand fold variations and seeming impossibilities, the things that are simply too big or strange for us to ever understand. For an illustration of this, one need only turn to the ending of Reynolds' Pushing Ice and the sheer awe it inspires, the feeling of (as Lovecraft might put it) cosmic irrelevance it forces on us, the forced expansion of thought and perspective until our own lives and worlds are just a distant, nigh invisible glint in the night, and all of that without necessarily needing to violate rationality.

To turn to the stories in this collection, it's stunning how closely Reynolds' descriptions and writing can at times be to those supreme fantasists and horror writers already mentioned, no matter how opposed their methods of reaching those moments of collapsing reality are. In the Fixation, Reynolds explores the idea of multiple dimensions and a method to exploit that multiplicity. The consequences of this are, in all their vivid and disorienting glory, familiar in style to anyone familiar with tales like Ligotti's Nethescurial or Lovecraft's The Colour out of Space: The door has vanished, leaving only a sagging gap in the wall. The floor is made of stones, unevenly laid. Halfway to her bench the stones blend together not something like concrete, and then a little further the concrete gains the hard red sheen of the flooring she has come to expect. On the desk, her electric light flickers and fades. The laptops shut down with a whine, their screens darkening. The lines of change in the floor creeps closer to the desk, like an advancing tide. From somewhere in the darkness Rana hears the quiet, insistent dripping of water. (p. 65) The same kind of insidious change dominates Byrd Land Six, twisting and destroying the humans caught in its path: Cookie had become ice, literally merging with the landscape. His clothes and exposed flesh were glistening and colourless. He was sleek, lacking detail, barely recognizable. (p. 161)

Not every story, admittedly, is successful at establishing or utilizing these expansions of perspective and reality. The Receivers is an alternative history of a world war where faint music can be heard over the British sonic detection systems. But this never goes anywhere, never coheres into some thematic revelation or some practical event, and the pudgy story – which somehow manages to be genteely tensionless even as bombs fall – takes forever to even get that far. The Sledge-Maker's Daughter spends a fair part of its length showing us a fantasy setting before the main character learns the Science Fiction backdrop of her world and the epic war that's taking place around its edges. But nothing ever comes of it. The tale's opening may've given us some feel for the fantasy world, but the Science Fictional revelation comes entirely through a multi-page infodump utterly lacking in emotional punch, and then the piece ends before the interesting parts of the story can even get started. And then there's the bizarre case of Soirée, a tale whose absolutely superb twist is only spoiled by it being a complete rip off of another Alastair Reynolds story (Beyond the Aquila Rift from Zima Blue, to be precise).

All of that's not to suggest, however, that Reynolds' strengths lie solely in that effect. He's at his best when he not only utilizes the strangeness of the weird but melds it with his other great talent, his skill and penchant for large scale, high stakes plots. The Star Surgeon's Apprentice; Fury; Tiger, Burning; and the aforementioned Byrd Land Six all successfully combine out there and thought provoking ideas with gripping plots and well drawn characters. The Star Surgeon's Apprentice's twists are a tad predictable, but that does little to diminish the tale's strength. Tiger, Burning is one of the collection's strongest pieces, a far future detective tale with a Vingian backdrop and an excellent core. Fury, meanwhile, is a distance- and time-spanning tale that perfectly captures the grandeur and feel of the interstellar empire it depicts. It also contains of the collection's greatest images, that of the emperor morphing and growing with his territory, swelling as each new territory – be it a planet, system or entire glittering star cluster – was swallowed into his realm. (p. 76)

Fury's morality, though, is rather more questionable. The narrator is the emperor's bodyguard, but grows horrified when he learns that, at the empire's beginnings, the emperor killed his brother, and that he, the bodyguard, played a role in that killing. As our narrator says, Every glorious and noble act that [the emperor] had ever committed, every kind and honourable deed, was built upon the foundations of a crime. The empire's very existence hinged upon a single evil act. (p. 100) Understandable indignation and horror, but rather harder to understand when one takes in the early wars of conquest that the narrator fully acknowledges: There might once have been a time when [the emperor's]  expansionist ambitions were driven by something close to lust, but that was tens of thousands of years ago. (p. 77) Just in case you think the difference is one of time, that those wars are too far gone for him to be held accountable for, the narrator helpfully says in relation to this one murder: So what if it happened thirty two thousand years ago? Did that make it less of a crime than if it had happened ten thousand years ago, or last week? (p. 100) So galactic wars of conquest, no doubt killing untold millions, aren't a big deal, but when one guy you know bites it, why, that's "unspeakable"! (ibid) Glad to know.

Not every story in the collection, mind you, is of the same Weird-esque cut. Stroboscopic shows us the future of gaming. It's a story somewhat reminiscent, for not too surprising reasons, of Iain M. Banks' Player of Games, in that a seemingly innocent hobby takes on monumental importance, but here that emphasis is not only internal; we're shown a system covered in an icy, brittle peace, where antagonism's only vent short of war seems to be these barely ruled competitions. Not all of it's supremely plausible, but it is inventive and enjoyable. On the Oodnadatta feels a tale of two hearts, the one lightly comedic, the other a horrifying and even disgusting look at the future, at rights, and at exploitation. The disconnect hurts it, but the latter part's more than strong enough to overcome the former, leaving this a memorable and vivid piece.

Viper is a supremely cynical tale (The designers had recognized that a system not amenable to corruption was of no use to anyone. (p. 263)) that seems to be building up to a twist, even shows the twist as it might go, but then backs away. Still, it's a strong read and a thought provoking one as well. Monkey Suit, the collection's only slice of the Revelation Space universe, alas, doesn't fare so well, a simple tale that only gains impact by alluding to (without in any way furthering) elements of other works in the setting. Finally there's Nunivak Snowflakes, the author's very first story. Though filled with developments and clever parts, the Reynolds of its time lacked the skill and finesse to weld them together, leaving it more interesting (both in ideas and from a biographical perspective) than well done.

Much of what I love about Reynolds' writing can be traced back to its blending of art and science, of emotion and intellect, elements of beauty and the vastness of reality. Though often dealing with dense scientific elements (though, even to a non scientist such as myself, the groundedness of those elements varies wildly), the stories here never got bogged down with explanations or grow overly confusing.  Occasionally, though, Reynolds does go too far in the other direction, evidently determined to explain simple things to the most determinedly dull, inattentive reader, like when he clunks out: I looked like a man, but in fact I was a robot. (p. 80) Adding insult to injury, there, the following two sentences (My meat exterior was only a few centimeters thick. Beneath that living shell lay the hard armor of a sentient machine. (ibid)) not only get across the same facts, but do so with immeasurably more style.

The effects of all this go beyond just the prose, though. Art's a vital part of viewing the world in these stories, a means of understanding and interacting with the world, as exemplified by eighteen 'stanzas' of a much longer epic 'poem' written in commemoration of the collapse of part of the polar region of [a race's] Dyson sphere about 1.2 million years ago, an accident that resulted in the deaths of  ~5.6 X 10^12 sentient beings. (p. 69) More personal horrors, too, are rammed home by similar means, as when the murders of a serial killer are described as the formalized sculpture of living meat. (p. 252) Then there's Fresco, one of the collection's two flash pieces, a quietly but grandly beautiful and haunting tale of slowly-shifting art that charts the rise and fall of civilizations. As the caretaker knows: Art is long […] And life short. (p. 245)

All of Deep Navigation doesn't live up to Alastair Reynolds' best work, though it does have several extremely interesting and well executed pieces. Any fan of the man's work is sure to find much to love here, and much, like his first story, that gives interesting perspective on the rest of his oeuvre. For the newcomer, though, this is best saved until after an exposure to Zima Blue, the Revelation Space series, Terminal World, or one of the man's other masterpieces.


  1. Nice article.

    I'm over half-way through Reynolds' books. I'd like to stay in the genre. Any suggestions for books or authors in Alastair's ballpark?


  2. Great collection, even if one or two stories have appeared in other publications you can not go wrong if you're an Alastair Reynolds reader or anyone looking for a thought provoking escape from an evolving superstar.