Reviews

Short Story: NIGHTINGALE (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If the previous story in this collection, Grafenwalder’s Bestiary, was not exactly a cheery read, Nightingale proved to be a veritable slide into horror: I don’t recall ever feeling such depth of dread with Reynolds’ works before, even when he described the awful transformations visited on flesh and metal by the Melding Plague. Still, it was the kind of story it’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away from, and despite the novella-length of the work I rushed through it in no time at all.

In the aftermath of a bloody war between two factions called Northern Coalition and Southland Militia, the planet of Sky’s edge has found some sort of balance, although the scars from the conflict are not completely healed: one of the items still left unchecked concerns the need to bring to justice the infamous Colonel Jax, whose name is associated with unspeakable atrocities. For some time it’s been believed that Jax had died, but Martinez, an older, wealthy man, has obtained fresh information about the Colonel’s presence aboard a hospital ship that was active during the war, the Nightingale. Gathering a small group of specialists, Martinez enrols them as a strike team to board the powered-down Nightingale and retrieve Jax, presumably lying in suspended animation aboard the ship.

What looks like a fairly simple operation turns quickly into a nightmarish journey through a huge vessel that looks dormant but is not exactly unresponsive – a ship that during the conflict was managed by a high-level AI capable of conducting autonomously many of the tasks required from a human team of medics in a war zone. As the team journeys through the darkened, empty ship, the sense of dread keeps intensifying, not only because of the ever-increasing difficulties the group encounters in opening interconnecting airlocks, but because the Nightingale seems to be waking up in increments, reacting to the intruders’ actions and actively making their progress more difficult and dangerous. Until they find out the ultimate truth about Nightingale’s AI and the effects produced on a sentient, but artificial, mind by witnessing the horrors of war in the flesh, so to speak…

I will leave to you the discovery of the final reveal about the ship’s choice of building a war memorial that would equal the impact of Picasso’s Guernica in the conscience of humankind, and will only tell you to brace yourselves, because you will need it.

 

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Reviews

Short Story: GRAFENWALDER’S BESTIARY (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If it’s possible to feel intense, visceral hate for a fictional character, one that exists only in the pages of a book, then this is what I felt for Grafenwalder, the protagonist of this story. He’s one of the spoiled wealthy individuals belonging to the Circle, a club of collectors of rare animals: in the Circle, status is defined by the number of one-of-a-kind specimens one is able to collect, the members striving to outdo one another not only in the uniqueness of their find, but in the way the hapless creatures are displayed, so that the shock value of each presentation is often achieved at the expense of the captured being.

And I consciously use the word ‘being’ because the prizes Grafenwalder is so proud of are not necessarily animals as such – not that such exhibits would be less monstrous in that case, considering the thoughtless cruelty the man shows toward his captives – but also sentient creatures from different evolutionary paths, or former human beings twisted into nightmarish shapes by surgery or genetic modifications, to the point of not being recognizable as human anymore.

Lately, Grafenwalder found himself in competition with Ursula Goodglass, a recent member of the Circle and therefore, in his eyes, an outsider in need of a lesson in humility: when he learns that the woman acquired a rare amadryad at the same time he did, he bribes the transport’s captain to kill the creature destined to Goodglass, and once the brief satisfaction for this low trick does not yield the expected results he vows to shock her and everyone else with a truly unique specimen.

The genetically engineered beings called Denizens that were showcased in the story A Spy in Europa have now become something of a myth, but through a shady dealer Grafenwalder manages to acquire what might be the very last one, preparing a special glass cage where the conditions of pressure and temperatures found on Jovian satellite can be replicated: here is where the base nature of the man’s spirit is shown in all its disgusting detail, and the cruelty he visits on the poor Denizen made me sick to my stomach. But even the very rich and powerful are not exempt from retribution…

This is not an easy story to read – or at least it was not for me – but I appreciated how Reynolds managed to keep a sort of detachment from what he describes. Still, I’m going to have a few nightmares about this one for a while…

 

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Reviews

Short Story: DILATION SLEEP (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

 

One of the main themes in the Revelation Space series is that of the Melding Plague, a cyber virus infecting the delicate nano circuitry of the implants people installed in their bodies, changing and re-shaping these implants into new configurations and negatively affecting the wearer.  In this story, a group of wealthy refugees from Yellowstone – one of the planets that were hit hardest by the plague – has taken to space in suspended animation, in the hope that the century of so of their travel away from the homeworld will allow scientists to find a cure, so they will be able to get back to their lives.  The ones less fortunate have either decided to place themselves in cryo-storage or to have the implants surgically removed.

Uri Sagdev is one the six crewmembers aboard ship whose stasis can be lifted should there be an emergency, and the ship does exactly that at the beginning of the story, interfacing with Uri through the likeness of his wife Katia: once Uri is over the worst of the revival process, the ship informs him that one of the other crewmembers was infected by the Melding Plague before departure, although the problem was undetected, and that Uri will have to operate on him to remove the altered implants before it’s too late: not even cryo-sleep is able to stop the infection and the man might die if they wait too long.

As Uri walks the deserted ship to get himself in better shape prior to the surgical procedure, however, he becomes increasingly aware of another presence – an impossibility, of course, because he’s the only one awake and mobile and there is no chance that a stowaway might have been hidden aboard for so long, without the basic means for survival. Still, there is definitely a shadowy presence haunting him…

Dilation Sleep is an edge-of-your-seat tale that will keep you guessing until the very unexpected reveal, a mix of science fiction and borderline horror that works very well and seems perfectly suited to this time of the year…  🙂

 

 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: A SPY IN EUROPA (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

 

In the third story of this anthology the focus shifts from Clavain and the Conjoiners to follow another character entirely: Marius Vargovic is a highly skilled spy, enrolled for a mission on Europa, one of the major Jovian satellites, where he needs to contact a sleeper agent to retrieve an important substance that will prove pivotal in the struggle between the Demarchists and another faction for the control of political power.

The first part of the story follows more or less the usual patterns of spy lore: the agent arrives on site in disguise and mingles with the crowds of workers and tourists that move through Europa, then he meets his target while trying to look and sound inconspicuous, and finally he concludes his mission, heading for the retrieval point.  What comes as totally unexpected, as the story unfolds, comes from the descriptions of the place and the unforeseen turn of events that leads to the conclusion.

Europa looks like a fascinating and terrible place: not only the settlements around Jupiter are flourishing – mostly because the economy of Sol System’s inner planets is dwindling – but on Europa they are based on floating cities anchored to the moon’s frigid oceans thanks to a crucial technological discovery. The cities were built through the work of the Denizens, humans who had been genetically modified so they could survive in the cold depths of Europa’s seas, and have been used as little more than slaves ever since.

Vargovic’s task, on behalf of the Demarchists’ adversaries from Gilgamesh Isis, consists in taking possession of a material that will sabotage the cities, and to do so he needs to be surgically altered in a way that will allow him to live underwater for the critical part of his mission. But as such operations go, there are plots within plots involved and even the main operatives are unaware of every detail, so that Vargovic will have to face more than he could foresee, or had bargained for…

A Spy in Europa is a great change of pace and scope from its two predecessors, and at first I found myself a little disoriented, but as the story rolled forward, gaining momentum and upping the stakes, I was fascinated by its twists and turns, and highly surprised by the unforeseeable ending.

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Reviews

Short Story Review: GLACIAL (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

The second story in this collection takes place some time after the events of Great Wall of Mars: Clavain is continuing his integration into Conjoiner society and is now part of an expedition on an ice-bound planet named Diadem, where the Conjoiners found an abandoned human base whose inhabitants are long dead.  Searching through the records, they discover that the group came from Earth as embryos, grown and taken care of by a set of robots: something of a common choice in the past when ships took a far longer time to travel between the stars. At some point, however, a viral infection caused the base dwellers to suffer a form of mental imbalance that ultimately led to their death: while exploring the now abandoned base, Clavain however discovers that one of the explorers died outside on the ice, and that what looked at first like an accident might be instead the consequence of a murder. And once the Conjoiners find one body preserved in cold storage, that of a man who hibernated himself in the hope of being rescued, Clavain can’t shake the suspicion that he might have had something to do with the death of his companions…

Glacial is in equal parts a mystery (which at some point turns into a murder mystery) and a journey of discovery for Clavain, who is still adapting to the Conjoiner nano-machines in his body and at the same time trying to keep hold of some aspects of his older self: while his companions can communicate more quickly and efficiently through direct mind-link, for example, he still prefers to talk, as if he were somewhat afraid that letting go of the last remnants of what he used to be, he might lose something important he will not be able to recover.  I liked very much his interactions with Galiana, the de facto leader of the small group of Conjoiner refugees he belongs to, and the affectionately amused way in which she stresses Clavain’s small quirks, just as I found intriguing the man’s need for some moments of solitude away from the constant flow of information that the Conjoiners take for granted.  The society he was “adopted” into is a fascinating one, and these small day-to-day details are fleshing out nicely the wider scope of Reynold’s Revelation Space background.

A less fascinating offering than its predecessor, but still a very interesting read.

 

 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: GREAT WALL OF MARS (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

In this story several of the characters I remember from Revelation Space are present, offering some of the much-needed backstory I needed to put their narrative arc into perspective, not to mention to better understand their motivations.

War between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners has been going on for some time, the latter now entrenched on Mars while their adversaries systematically destroy the shuttles launched in the attempt to evacuate the base. At the origin of the conflict is the general abhorrence for the Conjoiners’ way of life, one that implies the use of neural implants that speed up the individual’s thought processes and work toward a sort of shared consciousness that augments the cognitive abilities of the group.  Nevil Clavain and his brother Warren have fought long against the Conjoiners and Nevil was their prisoner for some time: for this reason, tired of the constant war that seems to reach no turning point, he offers a diplomatic solution he means to achieve by contacting Galiana, the leader of the Martian group and Nevil’s former jailer, a person he believes will be disposed to listen to his proposal.

Unfortunately, the shuttle on which Clavain and another diplomat are traveling on suffers a catastrophic accident and his companion is killed, while Clavain barely reaches the safety of the Conjoiners’ compound. Once there, his diplomatic mission is thwarted by an unexpected development whose consequences will bring him to shift his perceptions and change the direction of his thinking and even his life.

This was a great start to the anthology, and a very satisfying read: the pace is relentless and the sense of urgency and impending doom add to the definite feeling that there is much more than what appears on the surface – both in the actual background in which the story is set and in the narrative scope.   Great Wall of Mars also worked perfectly in making me understand the character of Clavain, whose role in the Revelation Space trilogy is one of the pivotal ones: if the other stories in this collection will do the same for other aspects of that series, I’m certain that my planned re-read will be a great journey of discovery.

Reynolds at his best, indeed.

 

 

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