Review: Zima Blue, by Alastair Reynolds

Zima_Blue

(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08456-8)

(Review first appeared in ASIM 47, August 2010)

Over the past decade, Alastair Reynolds has cemented his initial promise as one of the heavyweights of space-based SF. His work is consistently characterised by a clarity of description and of scientific thought which presumably owes something to his earlier career as a European Space Agency scientist. Probably best known for his Revelation Space sequence, he has also produced several stand-alone novels. He persists, too, in writing shorter fiction. Zima Blue is a newly-assembled collection of short stories and novellas.

“The Real Story” concerns Carrie Clay, a journalist, who’s hoping to uncover the truth behind the events of the first manned Mars landing. She meets Jim Grossart, first human to touch the red planet, or at least someone claiming to be him. But Grossart is a man of many parts … The worldbuilding in this story is striking, with some highly effective background touches, but as a character interaction it left me slightly nonplussed.

“Beyond the Aquila Rift” is an almost-perfect story of a routine space flight gone astray. In the space of thirty pages, Reynolds manages to convey in an utterly memorable fashion the ‘sense-of-wonder’ to which all SF aspires.  It’s tightly focussed and unsettling.

“Enola” is a shorter work of personal—or is that machine?—redemption, as a thinking weapon struggles to understand the implications of its role for the remnants of humanity.

“Signal to Noise” is a beautifully executed tragedy. Mike Hutchins’ wife is killed in a traffic accident, in one reality. In another reality, she’s unscathed. Can the bereaved Mike find closure, or solace, through meeting a different version of his dead spouse? Reynolds does an excellent job of capturing the interpersonal dynamics, the inevitability of loss, the conflicting emotions of a grief filtered through quantum duality.

“Cardiff Afterlife”, in some sense a sequel to “Signal to Noise”, is the shortest piece in the collection. It deals with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, in one reality, on the city of Cardiff.

“Hideaway” is the first of a trio of stories focussing on Merlin, a far-travelled refugee from a Galaxy-spanning conflict. The mechanoid Huskers are relentlessly closing on the Cohort vessel on which Merlin is a crewmember. Their only hope for escape is to hide, but how?  While the milieu of these stories is rather different to that of Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” universe, there are distinct commonalities in tone and pacing.

“Minla’s Flowers” is a story I’ve reviewed before, as one of the components of the first New Space Opera anthology. I won’t comment further on it here, other than to say that it’s a good story, and it’s interesting to see it in the wider context of the two adjacent, connected stories.

“Merlin’s Gun”, which is (for now) the last word in the Merlin sequence, was apparently written first, over a decade before the drafting of “Minla’s Flowers”. There were some aspects to the story which seemed to me awkward and inadequately explored, but there are also several accomplished touches, not least a nicely-handled ‘spot the star system’ exercise.

“Angels of Ashes” is a post-First-Contact story in which the enigmatic spacefaring Kiwidinok have established contact with humanity—or, rather, with one particular representative of humanity: Ivan, a former sewage technician from Smolensk. A rational society wouldn’t seek to dress up such a chain of events in mystical trappings, but …

It’s generally quite difficult to blend hard SF and space opera into a satisfying mix, but Reynolds doesn’t seem to find it problematic. “Spirey and the Queen” is a high-stakes space skirmish that plays with the divided loyalties and grey areas that underpin anything so supposedly black-and-white as the two sides of a conflict.

What, beyond once penning a song called ‘Rocket Man’, does Elton John have to do with the kind of dizzying cosmological extrapolation to be found in the best SF? Not much, I would have thought. But the novella “Understanding Space and Time” is an exquisite, towering monolith of a story, as its John-like protagonist seeks through evermore drastic modifications of form to become capable of interrogating, and understanding the ultimate structure of, the Universe itself. It’s a beautiful story, and one of the highlights of the collection.

“Digital to Analogue,” one of the earliest stories in the collection, presents another SF riff on a musical theme. It has a more distinctly cyberpunkish feel than most of the other stories here, and for my money doesn’t work so well.

In “Everlasting”, Moira pays a late-night visit to Ian, who’s convinced himself—almost—of his own quantum inviolability. But he has one further test to employ, and he needs Moira to be present to witness it. Can she talk him out of it? Does she, in fact, need to?

“Zima Blue”, another Carrie Clay story, brings the collection full circle. Carrie is reporting on the ultimate artwork constructed by reclusive artist Zima, who’s chosen a blue-tiled swimming pool as his final message to humanity. But why? This story closes the collection on a poignant, provocative note, challenging conventions of humanity and purpose.

Overall, Zima Blue is a very strong collection, and an excellent introduction to Reynolds’ SF strengths. Reynolds is an SF novelist who would seem to be more-or-less at the top of his game: that such a writer is still keen to also produce shorter work (and is so skilled in constructing memorable novellas and novelettes) is something for which admirers of the short form of SF should be grateful. “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, “Signal to Noise”, “Understanding Space and Time” and the title story in particular are all outstanding, but almost every other word here also earns its keep.

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