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Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

Some people just got “it”. Every age has its Clara Bows and, no matter what the activity, they inspire fannish behaviour from respectful admirers. The “it” can blaze from a well-established celebrity or be obvious in a newcomer. In the theatre over the decades, I recall seeing several walk-ons who attracted every eye without having to drop the spear — thirty years and more on, they are among those Brits who pop up in Hollywood films and steal the show. Being in the physical presence of such people is how you imagine moths must feel when they see a light. Obviously, this is not always possible but, even seen through a screen or read in a book, the high-powered wattage of attraction is still apparent.

For me, Alastair Reynolds is one of the writers who have “it”. His knack of storytelling leaps off the page and, in the niche of science fiction, manages to speak to the world. In the spirit of KISS, which usually translates as an instruction to keep everything simple, Reynolds has an uncomplicated prose style belying a very sophisticated narrative sense. He tells stories rather like a fisherman who casts out his hook on a float and waits for you to take a bite. Then he reels you in. So, starting Deep Navigation (NESFA Press, February, 2010) “Nunivak Snowflakes” gives us an everyday tale of eskimo folk who get messages hidden inside fish. This is an unshakable kind of narrative hook. You just have to keep on reading to find out who could possibly be using dead fish to communicate. It’s the same in “Monkey Suit”. This is an elegant ghost in the machine, body-mind dualism story. Let’s suppose an armoured exoskeleton suit has an artificial intelligence that has learned to anticipate its long-time occupant in both thought and action, and that occupant has physically died inside the suit. Is overwriting the suit’s software also a kind of murder by wiping the last vestiges of the man from the system. It’s at times like this that thinking engineers confront unexpected depths in their work.

“The Fixation” reminded me of the worst-case suggestions that the Large Hadron Collider might create a black hole and so cause the destruction of the Earth. At one point in the story, an observer asks the scientist responsible for the experiment, how she can be sure the maths is correct and there is no danger. This challenges the scientist in an area of faith. If the scientist did not believe in her ability to produce mathematical proofs, how could she consider the verifying experiment safe? All science is a balance of risks as we search for evidence in support of each given hypothesis. In this case, the chances of anything going wrong are vanishingly small and, anyway, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over. “Feeling Rejected” is a spoof published in Nature and, like all jokes written for scientists, it’s mercifully short.

“Fury” takes us back to ideas similar to “Monkey Suit” as the Emperor’s chief security officer investigates a failed assassination attempt. As in every good detective story, our investigator must follow the trail of breadcrumbs to identify not only the “who” but also the “why”. In this instance, it also brings us into an interesting discussion of what loyalty means. Some philosophers prefer the idea that loyalty is strictly personal, whereas others argue for the proposition that it’s perfectly possible to be loyal to a cause or, even, to a thing if it’s important enough. No matter which school is correct, we are left with the hope that loyalty will never become obsolete, even in the far reaches of a galaxy-encompassing culture.

“Stroboscopic” is an inverted detective story in that we see a “crime” committed in the first pages which gives a game player the chance to cheat and outperform competitors in the forthcoming demonstration of a new game. All the facts are laid out in plain sight for the readers to see. We just have to understand the significance of those first pages when we get to the crunch at the end and the right answer is a matter of life and death. Structurally this is a really pleasing story, playing fair with the reader at every point. It’s good to see narrative techniques in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman recycled so effectively in our century.

“The Receivers” is a big change of style to an alternate history in which we explore exactly what one might “hear” when using acoustic location systems — the forerunner of radar for detecting incoming bombers and fighters. This is real science prayed in aid of supernatural purposes. The result is a tragedy with a muted epic quality. How satisfying it would be if real artists could draw inspiration from the music of the spheres. In such a case, we would move beyond the technology as the receiver and recognise the artist as being inspired by clairaudience.

“Byrd Land Six” is the classic trope of a scientific experiment getting you into a real mess, analysing what has gone wrong, and then finding the only way out. In a sense, it’s a rerun of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” except we substitute technology for The Thing Form Another World. It’s a really enjoyable romp through all the weird science of a quantum entanglement Franson link between here and there, but instantaneously. I neither know nor care whether such an extension of our beloved bluetooth technology would be possible at the quantum level, but this is irrelevant as everything gets really connected and produces great adventure. Continuing in the same vein, we move into space pirate mode with “The Star Surgeon”s Apprentice” in which everything including lobotomised human slaves, and a captured alien and her baby get thrown into an over-the-top mix. “On the Oodnadatta” is a clever story speculating on what might be done with cryogenically frozen bodies in a distant future where there’s a shortage of physical labour. This is definitely an argument for unionisation. “Fresco” is a poignant short short as civilisations prove to be like Mayflies.

“Viper” overflows with ideas on future prisons. More importantly, it asks how we might test career criminals to determine whether they are sufficiently safe to be released on probation. Although it’s contrived to achieve the desired effect, it captures the horror of loss and consequent desire for private revenge, albeit wrapped in the justification of pubic protection. “Soiree” is a story of sacrifice in a noble cause. It challenges the hypocrites who support organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature to say what they would give up for the preservation of a dangerous species on the verge of complete extinction. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a dark sfnal idea, presumably inspired by the Angel of the North. The war in the heavens occasionally spills over into this future world and has, in this instance, found a guardian — although, in reality, there would be little she could do if the wrong side has won. Finally, “Tiger, Burning” is one of these pieces, packed to the rafters with fascinating ideas, delivered in the trope of a criminal investigation. The resolution is somewhat perfunctory but we forgive Reynolds because the setting for the story is so rich.

All-in-all, this is a highly satisfying collection for the thinking reader who enjoys science fiction as much for its ideas as for the “adventure” and “wonder”.

For a review of two novellas from Subterranean Press, see The Six Directions of Space and Troika, and the start of a new trilogy Blue Remembered Earth.

  1. November 22, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Great in depth review! I’ve yet to read any of Alastair Reynolds’ works…. sadly…

    • November 22, 2010 at 9:37 am

      Under normal circumstances, this collection would be the ideal introduction, but it’s already out of print. Reynolds sells like the proverbial hot cakes. So look around for a copy of Revelation Space. It suffers from being the “first” novel so he doesn’t quite get the pacing of the novel right, but it’s undoubtedly the best place to start. If you enjoy this, you can go on to read the entire series in the right order and so watch his development as a novelist as well as enjoying the ideas.

  2. November 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Oh, I don’t buy new books — so, I’ll just pick up a copy on abebooks or amazon…. Thanks.

  3. November 22, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Abebooks gives you a better choice. There are some good value paperback copies on offer. Enjoy.

  4. November 22, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Yup, I use it all the time 🙂

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