Published June 2016.
“’Tell me, Thorn. Are we out beyond the Rift?" I can hear the fear. I understand what she's going through. It's the nightmare that all ship crews live with, on every trip. That something will go wrong with the routing, something so severe that they 'II end up on the very edge of the network. That they'll end up so far from home that getting back will take years, not months. And that, of course, years will have already passed, even before they begin the return trip. That loved ones will be years older when they reach home. If they're still there.If they still remember you, or want to remember. If they 're still recognizable, or alive.”
In Beyond the Aquila Rift short-story, “Beyond the Aquila Rift – The Best of Alastair Reynold”
I've finally finished this 768-page-mammoth tome. Is it everything Reynolds has ever written in short form? Not by a long shot. It contains only eighteen stories of a total of sixty-something that Reynolds has written so far. But this sample of 18 stories confirms it (I read some of these stories previously in “Galactic North”). It's in the short form that Reynolds is at his best. I’ve read a ton of Reynolds in short form. Almost everything I’ve read, I’ve liked. Collections like this both excite and bother me. I’m a huge fan of the short mode of writing, and an equally big proponent of the less-is-more idea when it comes to the size of books. Massive magna opera simply turn me off. Even when I end up loving them, like I did with this one. What I don’t like is carrying some cumbersome volume around, and my preferred method remains print over digital. For this one I had to go for the electronic version. No way around it. If I’d had read the print version, I’d never have finished it. The big hefty tomes I end up reading them on my Kindle. Not my favourite venue, but I really wanted to read it.
Reading SF takes a bit of getting used to; it's not like other forms of fiction and has its own legacy-codes and ground-rules, just as mundane fiction does. The difference is that people who've put in the time and effort to learn mundane fiction’s values, proudly and loudly proclaim their superiority as readers, while anyone who's taken time and effort to learn how SF works and how to play that game is sneered at. Visual media, films, TV and games, can take elements from SF and re-use them imaginatively (or not) but that's not the same as what the prose-form does and expects readers to do. When a Brontë critic nit-picks about Austen, this is legitimate criticism and shows how diligent reading ought to function. When we talk about SF, a form of fiction built on close reading to invoke a world otherwise unverifiable, is analysed that way, it's because we're all neurotic and stupid. SF readership is reported on as weird folklore rather than as a side-effect of publishing economics or, heaven forbid, just like readers of anything else but with an extra string to their bow because they can read something most people won't touch. I read SF as a teenager (I still do). I spent the time to learn its "rules". I still read a lot of superhero comics, which also have their own "rules". A few years ago, I read “A Game Of Thrones”, and the first time I genuinely couldn't do it. It was so clichéd-riddled in conception, and its prose so tired (it's like every other fantasy book) that I was astounded by it and remain so. Well, 'Game of Thrones' is Fantasy and works by different rules. I had trouble too. The Fantasy aspect of SF, unless it's done very well and is entirely autonomous, isn't my thing. The mass-produced Tolkien-on-a-stick stuff appears to be written to be skim-read. “Game of Thrones” is set up that way, but once you get far enough you realise it's actually a refutation of those genre rules and clichés on a number of levels. That's why it's fun. I do wonder though how far Martin can smash those conventions and still deliver a satisfying ending - epic fantasy, like romance, having to fulfill certain expectations at the close. Without the conventional set-up, the shock of finding yourself in a different moral landscape from the vast majority of epic fantasy wouldn't be nearly so effective. For example, every character can be either right or wrong depending on their perspective. There are no good guys, and the guys who are set up to good guys don't sweep along heroically and win the day. The characters set up to be villains become human and understandable when we switch to their perspectives, which is a neat trick. It's really not at all like every other fantasy. I can understand finding the prose “difficult”, because it defies our own expectations.
For me, it is often style that separates the literary from the genre. For example, I felt I'd read the story in “The Road” many times before, even down to that last little glimpse of hope. I've seen in it books, I've seen it on TV. I've read better, more interesting, wide-ranging stories that take on similar material and have that very similar ending. But I've not read another quite so consistently and beautifully written. This is why I don't hold with the 'SF and Fantasy are the same thing' (they both belong to the SF line, but they’re quite different in mode and form). There's less in common between 'Game of Thrones' and 'The Book of the New Sun' (to cite an example publishers and lazy reviewers think is fantasy but doesn't work if read that way, as it's unimpeachably SF). I've read a lot of stylists, in a number of contexts. I suspect I've encountered more than most people have. Moorcock (also a fantasy specialist) isn't one of them. If these are the best examples you've read, I pity you... or maybe envy you for the authors you've yet to discover. But it does feel as if SF advocates seem to think that mundane fiction is synonymous with domestic realism, as opposed to Pynchon or Borges. Of course, to acknowledge that the modernist and postmodernist novel doesn't work that way would open up other pitfalls. When I hear someone taking a pop at Ballard for his lack of characterisation, I just go ballistic. When a significant proportion of literary writing is suspicious of traditional realism, Ballard fits a European postmodernist aesthetic pretty well.
SF (the Science fiction kind) is the genre that deals with ideas, their consequences and how they can exist. The latter meaning that there is a considerable amount of world building that goes into science fiction. A huge amount of effort goes into ensuring that the implications and extrapolations are consistent with each other - a kind of ensuring that the hidden implicit world makes sense. Believe me, as a veteran science fiction reader, the hidden world consistencies have to be worked out, or the work quickly falls apart.
Rule of thumb: anything in the Gollancz Masters series is worth a look, just to find out if you like it, anything from Baen should only be approached if recommended by someone who has had fluid bonding sex with you. Reynold’s sense of otherness and loss are firmly ensconced in the first category. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” is one the best collections that I've ever read and undoubtedly one of the best books of 2016. This is mindfuck SF. 4.5 as a minimum for the stories, rounding up to a 5 star read altogether. It’ll be on my list of favourites at the end of year. I’m repeating myself.
Table of Contents:
◦ Great Wall of Mars
◦ Beyond the Aquila Rift
◦ Minla’s Flowers
◦ Zima Blue
◦ The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice
◦ The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter
◦ Diamond Dogs
◦ Thousandth Night
◦ Trauma Pod
◦ The Last Log of the Lachrymosa
◦ The Water Thief
◦ The Old Man and the Martian Sea
◦ In Babelsberg
◦ Story Notes
SF = Speculative Fiction.