Review: Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

diamond_dogs_turquoise_days

(Gollancz 2003: ISBN 0-575-07516-3)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, September 2009)

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days is the frankly unpromising title of a pair of excellent, immersive novellas by British SF behemoth-in-the-making Alistair Reynolds, exploring some of the settings within his medium-future Revelation Space universe, which aside from these novellas is described within at least five of his novels and several short stories.

In Diamond Dogs, Roland Childe travels not to a dark tower, but to the Blood Spire, a mysterious alien artefact on an otherwise barren moon. The Spire betokens the wonders of alien technology, but requires that the pilgrims who seek to gain this technology must pass a sequence of increasingly stringent and demanding challenges in logic, geometry, or pure conceptualism. Childe has learnt of the Spire from footage of an earlier, and tragically unsuccessful, expedition; for his attempt, he assembles a small team of unorthodox experts including Richard Swift, a one-time friend and fellow puzzle fanatic; Richard’s forgotten ex-wife Celestine; and the biomedical genius-sadist Dr Tritignant. Richard, who is the story’s viewpoint character, is faced repeatedly with the question of whether the Spire’s risks — to fail at a problem is, as like as not, to die — are worth it. He’s divided between a sense of loyalty to Roland, loyalty to the woman he chose to erase from his memory, and the need for self-preservation.

Diamond Dogs is a good illustration of Reynold’s talents. The exploration of a forbidding alien artefact is one of the most clichéd tropes within SF, and handled inexpertly can make many a short story seem long; but at significantly over 100 pages, Dogs is spare, lean, and gripping. And there are precious few other writers active right now – Greg Egan is one, but I’m aware of no others – who could make the description of a puzzle in four-dimensional geometry into something that grips the soul, trips the heart, ramps up the adrenaline, in quite the manner that Reynolds does here. The story scarcely puts a foot wrong, anywhere. And the ending stings.

Turquoise Days is at once the more obscure title (Dogs is obviously a Bowie reference, but Days apparently borrows from Echo & The Bunnymen) and the ostensibly lower-key, lesser of the two novellas. Certainly it’s shorter than Dogs, and less immediately captivating, for all that its described landscape is considerably richer and more inviting than that of the preceding novella. Naqi and Mina, sisters, are assisting with the never-ending task of monitoring Pattern Juggler (pseudosentient algae) activity within Turquoise’s world-swaddling ocean. They detect a nexus of unusual activity upon the sea’s surface, directly beneath their dirigible. Intrigued, and concerned that the activity will have ceased before other researchers can gather, they elect to swim. Naqi re-emerges, but Mina does not, her mind lost in the water among myriads of other intellects. Naqi, bereft at the loss of her sister, is troubled also by her detection of something malevolent within the Juggler patterns.

And then there’s the lighthugger…a vessel due to arrive in Turquoise’s star system, having journeyed from another star. The last time such a vessel arrived around Naqi’s homeworld, a century ago, the social and political upheaval virtually shattered the planet’s fragile civilisation. Is history set to repeat itself – or worse?

Ultimately, Days earns its keep. And arguably the juxtaposition of the two novellas works in favour of both. Both Richard and Naqi are beautifully drawn and fully-credible central characters, but aside from their common thirst for knowledge they are very different people, products of very different environments. The quieter, slow pace of Days, while not belying the story’s sinister undertones, emerges as a refreshing counterpoint to the compulsive mania that consumes Dogs. Reynolds is a startlingly good novelist, and a writer of some quite remarkable short stories (see the Zima Blue review in the last issue of The Specusphere). The pairing of Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days proves he’s also no slouch at the novella.

Alastair Reynolds has a website at www.alastairreynolds.com.

 

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2009)

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