Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

22 May 2008

I have in my sweaty paws a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ story collection Galactic North. Amazon still lists this paperback as only available for pre-order, but my local Borders somehow got a copy on the shelf. After reading the two excellent novellas that comprise Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, I knew I’d want to read this one.

I’ve been waiting quite a while for this book. I’m a fan of pretty much everything Reynolds has published, to one degree or another. He writes a kind of dark space opera for the most part, heavily tinged with cyberpunk and horror. I like his writing style, although he’s prolific, and collectively the Revelation Space books have become pretty weighty. If you decide to read them, I advise taking breaks between volumes. The recent standalone novel Pushing Ice might be a better starting point. Galactic North also wouldn’t be a bad way to get accustomed to the Revelation Space universe before jumping into Chasm City.

I’m on story number four — they are all long short stories or even novellas. These stories fill in some of the back story about Clavain, Galiana, Remontoire, Freya, and other characters from the Revelation Space universe. But it’s a big, messy universe, with relativistic time dilation, so there is no danger that Reynolds will give away all the mysteries anytime soon.

I should clarify by reiterating that Reynolds writes space opera. In particular, the Revelation Space stories and novels are filled with intrigue and revenge and assassinations and alliances and betrayals, as well as nanotechnology, brain implants, weird and frightening weapons, artificial intelligence, and cold-sleep. He seems to pay homage to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, as well as to Gibson, Sterling, and maybe Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and others too numerous to mention. The Revelation Space universe is not virgin territory but Reynolds definitely has his own spin and his own atmosphere, but his stories are ultimately character-driven, a bit like Joss Whedon’s Firefly was both a science-fiction story but also a western and a very human drama.

While I read this I’m also eagerly waiting for the American edition of The Prefect. Borders tells me he has yet another book in the pipeline, House of Suns. I know nothing (yet) about either of these.

I’ve been waiting on several other books as well, so I might as well mention them. John Scalzi’s The Last Colony is coming out in paperback, and his book Zoe’s Tale is also in the pipeline. Scalzi writes in the mid-career Heinlein school to a certain extent, although he’s carved out his own particular niche in the military SF sub-genre, and keeps his stories very tightly edited, which I admire. Anyone (it seems) can write a thousand-page space opera, but a tight 300-page novel like Old Man’s War impresses me with its lack of wasted words. It’s up there with Haldeman’s The Forever War. These novels prove that a story doesn’t doesn’t need to be extremely complicated or wordy to be a good read.

I’m also awaiting the ailing Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, certain to be one of the best of the Discworld novels to date. I enjoyed Going Postal.

I’ve been anticipating the arrival of Greg Egan’s novel Incandescence in an American edition from Night Shade Books. However, Night Shade Books has been driving me crazy by pushing back the publication date for the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, Volume 5 indefinitely. I got sick of waiting for the American paperback edition of Incandescence, so I ordered a copy of the Gollancz (British) edition instead, which has shipped and should be in my mailbox soon.

On impulse, a month or two ago I picked up Iain Banks’ novel Matter (in hardcover). It was decent enough, but it seems like I have started to have less and less respect for “soft” SF. The difference between hard and soft SF generally boils down to whether you allow breaking known physical law. Not stretching it, or extrapolating, but breaking it. This usually means that hard SF does not allow faster-than-light travel, and interstellar travel has to take into account relativistic time dilation.

Now, writers like Stephen Baxter introduce loopholes, like using wormholes, but with physics, at least in his earlier books, more-or-less extrapolated from current speculation by physicists, and with corresponding complications. In recent books Baxter has chosen to play tennis with the net down, so to speak, and has gone over to allowing ghosts and psychic projection and time travel and all manner of other wish-fulfillment. And then there is Gene Wolfe, who gets a free pass, because he is a genre unto himself.

Anyway, back to Matter. It had neat aliens, but I really disliked the ending, and so I can’t really recommend it. I’ve heard good things about Banks’ Culture novels so I’ll give them another chance; The Algebraist is on my to-read pile, but Matter is going in the giveaway pile.

Let’s see, while I’m at it I should also mention that I read Charles Stross’s novel Glasshouse on the trip to Las Vegas. I wouldn’t rate it his best work — I think he’s best when he’s writing in a looser, more humorous style, like The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, or the linked stories-made-into-a-novel book Accelerando, or his excellent short stories in Toast. Glasshouse is a little grim, and will also probably go on the giveaway pile. I also polished off David Brin’s Kiln People, which was very clever and funny and enjoyable but far too long and which, I feel, also did not end well.

Last, after picking at it for the last couple of years I finally finished volume 1 of Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight and am starting on volume 2. Gene Wolfe really is a horse of a different color!

How does a parent like me with a full-time job and 3 kids find time to read? The answer is that I don’t find very much. I manage to get maybe 15 minutes a day that are truly to myself, and so it takes me a relatively long time (usually two weeks or more) to finish a book. But I’m also usually chipping away at a half-dozen books at once, and I switch between them to keep myself interested. I also read very quickly, which helps make up for it, although the downside of reading very quickly is that my attention sometimes wanders. That’s a surefire way to lose track of what is going on, particularly in a Wolfe novel, but that’s again a topic for another day.

Oh, while I’m at it, I bought one interesting movie, a Criterion Collection edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth. I’m a sucker for psychedelia. I did not know it at the time, but apparently this is the film that Philip K. Dick wrote about in disguised form in his veiled-autobiographical Valis. (And speaking of Philip K. Dick, I’ve also pre-ordered the second Library of America volume!) Anway, it’s a weird movie, just the way I like ’em. Grace hated it. She wants to start recording a movie review show, Potts and Potts. She’s thinking a videotaped segment to run on Community cable; I’m thinking a podcast might be better. I’ve definitely got a face for radio!

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