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The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds has been anthologised twice and was published as a hardback stand-alone by Subterranean Press (2008) quickly going through two printings. So the question naturally arises: what makes this story so good? The answer is one of these deceptively simple throw-aways. This is superior space opera. Ah ha! What does that mean? Well, the whole point of space opera is that it should be highly melodramatic and involve a major confrontation between large groups of people in outer space, i.e. it has epic pretensions. If at all possible, it should be a clash between civilisations. If that’s too much to ask for, there should be battles if not a full-scale war, hopefully with blasters blasting and the baddies wiped from the face of the universe. This, of course, was typical of many of the pulps and novels published in the middle part of the last century. Most of it was extraordinarily bad by today’s standards. So, if a modern author aims at this target, he or she must take great care to avoid the mistakes of the past. This can be done by adding a veneer of humour to proceedings, or it can simply be better written with a more “credible” plot. Obviously, all science fiction by definition requires a suspension of disbelief but readers nevertheless look for elements in the text which match our expectations of how people and aliens will behave in different circumstances.

Alastair Reynolds shows there’s nothing to fear by wearing a red shirt

 

This novella manages to hit three targets with the one shot. It’s space opera, it has a Big Dumb Object, i.e. humans come across a major alien artifact, explore it and then try to make it work, and it’s alternate history. In this case, the relevant human society discovers a major transportation system built by long-lost aliens. After some experimentation, they use the system to achieve a human diaspora among the stars. All this seems to be going well except there are worrying hints that there may be problems emerging. In this version of reality, the Earth has risen to power under the control of the Mongol armies. More than one-thousand years have passed since the death of Genghis Khan and an intensely militaristic culture has arisen. Interestingly, for all the development of superior technology including spaceships, key personnel still follow the tradition of riding horses whenever possible. Because of the tribal system, there’s also a general failure to share information. Factionalism means each tribe will maintain secrecy if they believe they can profit. In an attempt to infiltrate one such tribe, a top spy, who goes by the name of Yellow Dog, does the undercover thing. As planned, she’s arrested by a key player in the tribe holding the information she needs. After enduring torture, during which she carefully reveals cover identities, she finally admits her “real” identity and is recruited to pursue the investigation into what may be wrong with the transport system. The answer proves to be a completely fascinating idea as to one possible property of the wormholes that make the BDO such an effective transportation system over long distances. The problem is an interesting variation on the idea underpinning the presence of the Prophets in the Bajoran wormhole in Deep Space Nine.

 

So there you have my usual cryptic introduction to a story. If you want to find out what actually happens and why this does prove to be a clash between civilisations with blasters blasting, you had better lay your hands on a copy. It’s completely engrossing and, unfortunately, ends all too soon. The Six Directions of Space is the sort of idea other authors would have blown up into a full-length novel. Alastair Reynolds does only what’s necessary to set up the situation and leave on a note of hope. If you have not already done so, you should lay your hands on a copy.

 

The jacket artwork is by Tomislav Tikulin.

 

The Six Directions of Space first appeared in Galactic Empires edited by Gardner Dozois (Science Fiction Book Club, 2008), an anthology of six original novellas. It then appeared as a hardback stand-alone from Subterranean Press and finally reappeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by the ubiquitous Gardner Dozois.

 

For more reviews of books by Alastair Reynolds, see:
Blue Remembered Earth
Deep Navigation
Troika

 

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