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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

 

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2012) is the first in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy and, on the face of it, offers answers to the now relatively familiar question of what would happen to humanity if we wrecked the planet through global warming, then slowly remade the Earth and expanded into the solar system. For this purpose, we assume significant technological advancement with genetic engineering extending life span and producing a new aquatic civilisation in the seas, while computers augment the lives of those who have survived and provide the ultimate Big Brother system for keeping order. In theory, this is a utopian society. Apart from the Descrutinised Zone on the Moon and other places where the surveillance technology cannot reach, the majority of conventional humans have little chance to misbehave. Yet, of course, a certain rebelliousness does remain. You can’t conveniently program minds to be conventional. But apart from the usual imperative to maximise earnings, there seems very little incentive for humanity to progress in any meaningful way. For the “ordinary” people, it’s a relatively quiet life.

Before looking beyond this simple assessment, we need to think about the author. Alastair Reynolds is currently carrying the Olympic torch for “new” space opera or perhaps this is an example of postmodernist space opera. Whatever label you want to apply, we’re introduced to the dangers of old military hardware still dotting the landscape in Africa. Then we visit the Moon and have a run-in with the Chinese who continue to think they should hide behind a Wall and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Then it’s off to Mars and, by the time we’re finished, we’ve had a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of the solar system (not forgetting those folk under the sea, of course). Except the tone of the book lacks that breathless sense of wonder underlying brainless action that characterised “old” space opera. You probably remember those early books used to plunge into the first meeting with hostile forces, showing immediately how they were a real threat. Then the forces of good gathered, mustered and confronted the threat. Those were the days! Yet this book deliberately avoids older plotting conventions.

Things are looking up for Alastair Reynolds

At its heart, Blue Remembered Earth is a remarkably gentle meditation on cognition. It considers both the process through which information is gathered and processed so that it’s understood and may form the basis of voluntary acts and omissions, and the process of accountability where people take responsibility for what they think and, therefore, how they act. Alastair Reynolds addresses the theme at three different levels. Starting with human beings, we have the ultimate panopticon with the “thought police” allowed a window into everyone’s head. Immediately the monitor detects the decision to bash the living daylights out of another sentient being, it zaps the brain of the offender in motion before the blow can land. This instant sanction has a chilling effect on violent impulses. Except it’s less than foolproof. To achieve their desired results, those who aspire to badness are simply devious, never appearing to be doing anything terrible but actually achieving the result indirectly. All the technology does is turn down the heat and pace of anything potentially operatic. Instead of some great villain coming onstage and blasting out an aria to shake the chandeliers, it must all be whispered conspiracies in physical places where the surveillance is weak or nonexistent. Those who have violent tendencies have machines fight each other — the experience of violence delivers a kind of vicarious catharsis. As a world, this is more dystopian than utopian. Although the environment is physically recovering after humanity’s collective failure to act, the price to be paid is a kind of enforced passivity. If we were not rational enough to prevent ecological disaster, then we must be controlled until we demonstrate enough maturity to be allowed to live freely again. Except who decides on the definition of maturity and how is it to be measured?

The second strand of this debate is found in the work of Geoffrey. He’s an obsessive autodidact scientist who studies elephants in the wild. Well that needs a little qualification. These elephants are a form of walking experiment with enough electronics implanted in their heads to power very high levels of communication. Indeed, Geoffrey is slowly building up a cognitive bridge which will enable him to experience the world as an elephant and, because bridges can carry traffic in both directions, allow the elephant to sample human thought. This is a slightly different version of the system monitoring human impulses because the intention is to allow full sensory identification between the human and host elephant. A more interesting question will be how the elephant will react to thoughts from the human mind. Although Geoffrey is studying the behaviour of the animals both as individuals and within the herd structure, this is both a simple model of human society, and it opens the door to the possibility of improving on the elephant’s level of cognition, i.e. achieving some degree of intellectual uplift.

The third strand of the theme lies in machine-based intelligence. Because both humans and animals have interfaces with advanced technology, there are rules about the extent to which machines may develop their own artificial intelligence and so become independent beings, and the extent to which machines may actually control human or animal behaviour. At this point, we touch on technological singularity. Throughout the book we are shown how technology can augment the human mind, but there’s a strong resistance against any move to allow machines to develop a level of intelligence greater than humanity. With the exception of the use of technology to suppress violence, Alastair Reynolds assumes the mass of humanity prefer to dawdle along rather passively. Having just survived what could have been an extinction event, leaders prefer not to take too many risks until everyone has grown up a little and can take responsibility for their own actions again.

So that’s the set-up in a longish book which quietly explains what has been happening and then shows how the death of a grandmother can suddenly destabilise the lives of her grandchildren and force them to take decisions about what kind of people they want to be. Yes, there are the occasional trappings of space opera as we try to break into a space station that prefers not to be disturbed and meet a few homicidal robots living wild and evolving into who knows what. But the real strength of the book lies in the conversations as we watch people react to the changing circumstances. It’s not gripping, wow-factor space opera, but rather a meticulously constructed adventure story in the quest mode as our two main characters try to follow the clues left behind by their grandmother. This makes Blue Earth Remembered a fascinating read and it should be picked up by anyone with an interest in thoughtful science fiction in which the future of the solar system hangs in the balance — I guess that makes it space opera.

For a review of an excellent collection by Alastair Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, and two impressive novellas: The Six Directions of Space and Troika.

Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a new novella from Alastair Reynolds and, by any standards, one of the best shorter pieces I’ve read so far this year. However, to get a complete view of this story, it’s necessary to engage in a little deconstruction.

Troika is a delightful traditional Russian folk dance celebrating the social reliance on the three-horse sled as the main form of transport when winter sets in. As orchestrated by Prokofiev, it’s included inside Lieutenant Kije, originally written as a score for the film of the same name and then performed as a suite for the whole orchestra. To reflect the origin of some of the folk components, the music has also been used as the basis of a ballet.

I take the time to explain the significance of the title because the name given to the alien artefact when scientists first get a clearer view of it is Matryoshka, named after the doll in which a set of smaller dolls is revealed as each outer shell is opened. So too, with the music, the melody called Toika is captured in some sophisticated orchestration and included inside a greater whole which can then be used for completely different purposes.

Even more importantly, we are dealing with an unreliable narrator so everything he says may be distorted, burying truth inside a shell of self-deception or alien-induced confusion. Finally, we have two completely separate narrative arcs within the broader whole. First, there’s the story of Nesha Petrova, the brilliant astronomer who first identifies the connection between the alien artefact and music. Then there’s the story of Dimitri Ivanov who, together with two other cosmonauts, goes to investigate the artefact. Both arcs are included within the shell of the story of their meeting years after Ivanov returns to Earth. However, there’s a broader point to be made about social dynamics.

As Nesha explains about Russia, “We live in a flawless collectivised utopia. But a flawless society can’t, by definition, evolve. If it proceeds from one state to another, there must have been something wrong, or sub-optimal, about it.” In this novella, Reynolds is challenging us to understand the process whereby all the different cultures come in a nested form, exactly like the set of dolls. Within a country and its dominant culture, there may be many subcultures, any one of which may be the seed from which a new dominant social structure may emerge. So, for example, through a process of perestroika, a new version of the Communist state may develop. Think of it as being like one of these time travel stories where our intrepid idiot changes the past and creates alternate realities throughout time. Or where one person’s identity comes under pressure and new, unexpected qualities emerge.

Alastair Reynolds wondering what it would be like inside a matryoshka

When you open this handsome book from Subterranean Press, you have already begun to separate the first outer shell of this matryoshka, revealing the words inside. Then, as you read the words, you slowly unpack the narrative elements, seeing each as separate entities, but appreciating the author’s skill in constructing this elegant tale in a nested form.

Appropriately, when you get to the end, you find there’s one more doll inside the whole. It’s a very clever doll that makes the whole thing true, or not, as you decide.

Taking Trioka as a whole, it’s a remarkably strong novella, full of incident when the team tries to get inside the alien artefact, full of intelligence when Petrova and Ivanov review the debate on what its appearance might mean. More fascinating is the issue of the music. Why should the artefact apparently announce its presence by playing a Russian folk song? Perhaps it’s a hint the aliens want to signal something about their method of transport. There may not be three horses in front of this “thing” when it arrives in our solar system, but there may be a connection — a different kind of horse power, perhaps. What makes everything so pleasing is that, even though we’re dealing with imagined levels of science, Alastair Reynolds’ background as an astronomer gives the explanations a substantial veneer of credibility.

I confess to being hooked from the word go. Troika is yet another excellent production from Subterranean Books which seems to be developing a pleasingly high level of quality both in the choices of what to publish and in the physical form of the books they produce. This is well worth the money. As a word of warning to the wise, I suspect this book will fly off the shelves so order your copy now or miss out.

The jacket art is by Tomislav Tikulin. The top image is for the trade hardcover edition and the bottom image is exclusive to the signed limited edition. There are two internal illustrations.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, a stand-alone novella The Six Directions of Space, and the start of a new trilogy Blue Remembered Earth.

Finally, Troika was originally published as part of the anthology Godlike Machines, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Based on this appearance in 2010, it has been nominated for both the 2011 Hugo Awards and the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella.

 

Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

November 19, 2010 5 comments

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.

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