book reviews by Althea

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds

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Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds
Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great Wall of Mars
A really complex scenario for a short story, but it works, with a good core narrative and glimpses of a coherent larger universe and history outside it.
A small group of implant-enhanced humans is holed up in a Martian colony, under threat from a vastly larger force who view their actions – attempts to ‘escape’ – as military provocations. Two brothers are part of that larger force. One, motivated by revenge, wants war. The other, a former POW, insists on going down for peace negotiations.
An interesting entry into the transhumanist genre, and a nice introduction to this universe.

Due to this book’s formatting, I wasn’t immediately certain I had started a new story. ‘Weather’ is in the same universe as ‘Great Wall of Mars,’ but set a few generations later.
Out in deep space, a stroke of luck allows a crew to repel a pirate attack. From their attacker’s drifting hulk, the victors reluctantly rescue a young woman who’s a ‘Conjoiner’ – a member of a borg-like, ‘post-human’ collective who are both feared and hated – even as they make the best starship engines to be found anywhere.
One crewman becomes her advocate, trying to protect her from his captain’s seemingly irrational animosity toward the refugee…

Beyond the Aquila Rift
There’s a reason this is the title story! Great sci-fi!
Thom is the captain of a small ship doing a routine cargo run, along with his two crewmates. Although the run – and indeed, all of human civilisation – depends on the wormhole-like routes between stars that are assumed to be the remnants of some long-lost alien civilisation, the use of these routes has become pretty much taken for granted. Sure, there are occasional glitches, but interstellar travel is now as safe and reliable as airline travel is today. The worst that usually happens when a glitch occurs is a minor delay. The crew might be disappointed to make it home late to their families, and pissed off to not receive their bonus pay.
And within these pages, unfortunately for Thom, is a situation where a glitch occurs.
The story does a great job of setting up a completely plausible scenario… and then just wrenching the reader’s perspective dizzyingly. Loved it.

Minla’s Flowers
A solo captain on a mission unexpectedly falls out of warp drive near an unknown system. In search of repairs, he finds a planet which has been out of touch with the rest of human civilization for millennia. His visit seems almost like a pastoral idyll, a time-out from the larger universe of vicious war with nasty aliens – until he discovers that this planet is running on borrowed time: a ‘natural’ disaster looms in the near future.
What he chooses to do next will affect the fate of the entire planet…
A sadly believable, but ultimately satisfying tale.

Zima Blue
Famous galaxy-wide, an artist is known for his use of one particular shade of blue. Now, he’s announced that he’ll be retiring – but he has one last work to unveil. Journalists and media have flocked to the location, but he’s denied interviews to everyone… except one.
But when she meets the artist, it seems that rather than his work, he wants to talk to her about the gadget she uses to record her memories.
Where the story goes from there is profoundly disquieting – and very interesting.

Works nicely as a thematic companion to the previous story (‘Zima Blue.’)
For millennia, the Emperor of the known universe has ruled justly and wisely. His intellect cannot be confined to one mere human body, so when one of his host of cloned bodies is assassinated, it’s no big deal… seemingly. But his faithful retainer, who’s been at the Emperor’s side for longer than even he can remember, is compelled to find out who was behind the act of violence, and what the motivations could have been.
What he finds is not what he expected.
The ending is… strange.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice
Fleeing a bad situation on a rough-and-tumble spaceport, a young man takes the first and only option available to him – a job as a doctor’s assistant on a ship he knows nothing about except that it’s leaving immediately. The surgeon – well, let’s just say he’s no Dr. McCoy, and soon enough our ‘hero’ realizes that he may have jumped out of a frying fan into a fire.
Classic sci-fi – and excellently done.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter
Although the sci-fi elements emerge from this story, it starts out with almost a traditional fantasy feel, as a poor village girl tries to avoid abuse from her father’s boss’ son as she runs an errand to the home of the old woman who’s known – and feared – locally, as a witch. At the witch’s house, the girl will receive a way to defend herself – and secrets will be revealed about not only her people’s history, but what they may face in the future.

Diamond Dogs
EXTREMELY similar premise to Algis Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon.’
As in that story, a mysterious extraterrestrial structure is discovered which seems to be designed to challenge all those who enter it – and failures are destroyed. As in the other story, exceptional contenders are recruited, and ‘duplicate’ bodies are considered as a possible method of solving the puzzle.
The main differences are that this story is not at all sexist, unlike Budrys’, and that this piece focuses on telling a good story, rather than spouting off on random theories about ‘manliness.’ (Although, this one does indeed have something to say about what constitutes “hu-manliness.”)
I have read that this is part of Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space’ writings, and it is clearly presented as a single incident in the life of a character who undoubtedly appears in other books.

Thousandth Night
In an extreme far-future, humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, splitting and dividing into different cultures and civilisations, adapting itself to wildly multifarious forms of existence. One strand of humanity originated with one individual in the distant past. Cloning herself, she then sent her clones out to range the stars, exploring and pursuing their separate interests. But at set times, they all return to share their experiences and memories. It’s become an ancient tradition.
But at this one reunion, two of these posthuman individuals, who are especially close to one another, begin to suspect that someone is breaking the rules – and that something is being hidden from them. Investigating the omissions and disparities will uncover something bigger than they could have guessed.
A nice example of an accessibly-sized story set against an epic backdrop.

Once a cosmonaut, now an inmate at a mental hospital, our protagonist escapes his confinement for a final mission: to find an aging, discredited astronomer and deliver something to her.
His reasons are gradually explained in flashbacks to his notorious mission: a brave expedition to investigate what might be an alien construct which has suddenly appeared in orbit around our sun. Its strange, layered structure lends it the nomenclature: Matryoshka. Three Russian cosmonauts hope to penetrate its layers and discover invaluable data – but what they discover will not bring them the fame and glory they hoped for.
Unusually for this collection, the setting here is extremely near-future and the plot is anchored firmly in the current concerns of our world. Honestly, I felt that the tone of the story verged on negative propaganda (not that I’m any huge fan of Russia, but…). However, it was written well enough for me to forgive its slant.

My favorite one in this collection so far. ‘Sleepover’ takes a familiar sci-fi theme and does something totally unexpected with it.
Our protagonist, formerly the billionaire CEO of a technology company, awakes from medical cryosleep expecting what he had asked for when he paid handsomely for the procedure: that he’s hibernated until the secret of immortality – or at least, life extension – has been discovered. But the dingy room and disrespectful attendants don’t seem like part of the bright, shiny and wealthy future he expected.
He’s been revived for a reason, and, he realizes, as he discovers the gritty, decaying off-shore oil rig he’s on, in rough Patagonian waters, it’s not a glamorous reason. But, it could be meaningful…

An artist is unexpectedly approached by a private investigator, bringing up an incident which she had thought long past and forgotten – and really, unimportant to anyone except herself, as a bit of a romantic embarrassment. But there were unforeseen consequences to that commission she did for a wealthy and untrustworthy playboy. And now the investigator has a threat to make – or is it an offer?

Trauma Pod
Military Sci-fi horror! And it really is quite horrifying. Seriously injured on a devastated battlefield where the main combatants are massive robots, a soldier has been bundled into a medical pod for emergency treatment. Advanced telemedicine lets him know that while the damage is severe, help is on the way. But is the doctor keeping vital information from him?
I guarantee you’re going to come away from this one with an unpleasant feeling about technology.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa
Another really-quite-horrific sci-fi story. The narrative intercuts between a scene which seems to be a crewmember doing something quite awful and definitely mutinous to her former captain, and a past narrative in which we gradually find out why. Apparently, the small crew – two hired spacers, the captain, and his rather horrible pet monkey – are treasure-hunters, so when they find an old wreck in a remote corner of space, they investigate in hopes of finding a big score. But the body of the downed spacer is mysteriously missing, and the nearby volcano seems to be emanating bad vibes. What they find is definitely not going to make their fortunes…

The Water Thief
Wow. Great story. The themes and treatment remind me of Paolo Bacigalupi.
A woman in a refugee camp scrapes by, earning a living for her daughter and herself by working freelance jobs where she operates robots through VR.
A situation in her camp where an individual is ‘apprehended’ for stealing water rations is neatly paralleled by a dilemma she must face on one of her jobs, when, for the first time, she experiences through VR the lunar colony she’s dreamed of as a symbol of success and escape.
A difficult and thought-provoking example of the intersection of – and conflicts between – compassion, justice, and ethics.

The Old Man and the Martian Sea
Even on Mars, teenagers go through the same angst, for the same reasons. Family conflict spurs one young teen, Yukimi to run away from her home in a colony on the half-terraformed planet by stowing away on an unmanned cargo transport – which turns out to be a supremely bad idea. Luckily, she encounters a solitary, elderly worker at a remote delivery drop-off point. The encounter could shift the girl’s perspective on several things she had taken for granted. Poignant and thoughtful.

In Babelsberg
Eh, this one was good, but probably my least favorite in the collection. I wouldn’t have chosen it as the finale to the anthology. The narrative balances absurdity with sci-fi’s tradition distrust of robots. Our main character is an AI in an android body, back from an exploration mission of the outer solar system. He’s got celebrity status, and is booked to appear on a series of ridiculous popular talk shows. There’s a newer, equivalent AI space probe who’s recently been introduced, and the media is eager to play up an imagined rivalry… or, is it imagined?

I really can’t explain why, but this collection was my first introduction to Alaistair Reynolds work. I’m impressed – this is good stuff! Many thanks to Subterreanean and NetGalley for encouraging me to discover an author I really ought to have been reading long before this! As alwasy, my opinions are solely my own.

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