Daily Archives: December 8th, 2010

Zima Blue

Published in the UK in I think 2009, this is a collection of some of Alastair Reynolds’ short stories from 1991 through to 2007. I’d read a couple, but not many, so I enjoyed it immensely, even though there were a few stories that didn’t really rock my world. I won’t give a complete review here; suffice to say that I don’t think there are any Revelation Space stories here; there are some very near-future as well as some awesomely far-distant future stories; and mostly they’re great. Three stories in particular caught my attention, not least because they revolve around the same character: Merlin.

The stories are (in narrative chronological order) “Hideaway,” “Minla’s Flowers,” and “Merlin’s Gun.” I’d read the second, because it was written for Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois’ most awesome anthology The New Space Opera. It remains my favourite; having the additional background provided by “Hideaway” makes it all the more fascinating. The sequence is one of Reynolds’ very, very far future histories. It begins with a group of humans in an enormous spaceship attempting to escape the Huskers, who have been systematically wiping humans from the galaxy. The group ends up hiding in a solar system, making various discoveries, and ultimately taking a drastic decision to escape annihilation. All except Merlin, who goes on and – in “Minla’s Flowers” – lands on a planet divided between two factions, and whose sun is (cosmologically speaking) going to be blown up any moment. Merlin gets involved, and the story follows the consequences of that. Finally, in “Merlin’s Gun,” Merlin finds the weapon he’s been seeking that will allow the humans to combat the Huskers, hopefully stopping the genocide. Of course, things are never quite that simple, and all sorts of interesting things are revealed.

I love the plots of these three stories, and my precis here does not do them justice. However, more than just the plots, it’s the ideas that I was intrigued by. Firstly, the vision Reynolds presents of galactic civilisation is a fascinating one. There are any number of far-future stories that imagine a basically unbroken chain of human existence, where humans just keep on building on what they already know, with few hiccups along the way. More rarely, someone writes of a pangalactic spread of humanity that hasn’t managed that continuity – as suggested by Isaac Asimov in Foundation, for example. In those sorts of stories, humans sometimes have an understanding of what they’ve lost, and sometimes not. The former is the case here, and is most vividly demonstrated by the fact that Merlin and his companions have no idea how to use the Waynet: a system of nearly-faster than light tunnels traversing the galaxy. This suggestion of galactic ups and downs is a really fascinating one. (Taken to extremes you get cargo-cult stories, which can be well done or can be painful.) I think it’s the most likely outcome, really. It does suggest a pessimism about human nature, of course, because usually the ‘downs’ are caused by wars.

Secondly, “Minla’s Flowers” deals really interestingly with issues of colonialism and the oft-accompanying attitude of paternalism. Merlin has a century to get Minla’s people up to speed on how to escape their doomed planet. But he doesn’t make them anything, or even give them all the answers. He provides what were probably intensely annoying, vague suggestions that lead to the development of atomic power. Merlin sleeps away most of the time, waking every couple of decades to provide further tidbits of information. Now, partly he acts this way because he himself doesn’t understand all of the technology he uses, for the reason outlined above. But partly he does it because he thinks that the people ought to do things for themselves. In general I’m in favour of that idea, I think, although it’s problematic when it would be easy enough to simply provide technology and supplies and instantly make things better. Both approaches have their problems, of course.

Finally, the character of Minla is a fascinating study in power. Meeting Merlin as a young girl, over the years she becomes the leader of her people and is shown as responsible for the actions they undertake. In the author notes, Reynolds says he was inspired in writing her by “a certain grocer’s daughter with ambitions to high office,” and it’s clear he had things like the Falklands War in mind when writing about her. The decisions she takes, particularly in relation to how the opposing faction is dealt with, are never suggested to be inevitable. Rather, they are precisely that: decisions, made deliberately, not forced by circumstances. I like that sort of dedication to your character, and I like that although she started off admirably she went downhill terribly – yet with a sort of terrible dignity.

The anthology in general is awesome. These stories are in the middle, and form a nice centrepiece.

The Quantum Thief

Sensory deprivation tanks are weird things. They remove all sensory inputs from the inhabitant, who is left just… floating… presumably so that they can concentrate on just thinking.

The first couple of chapters of The Quantum Thief (by Hannu Rajaniemi) are the complete opposite of a sensory deprivation tank. Within just a few pages, the narrator dies and comes back to life, confronts a copy of himself, bemoans being in prison, is rescued by a woman having hallucinations, and discovers that he has been rescued in order to do what he does best: steal something. Descriptions are vivid, and I had the feeling of being swept along – like there was no time to lose, everything has to happen fast so get on with it! – an effect that never let up over the whole 330 pages.

The book switches perspective several times, which adds to the hectic feel. The main narrator – the only character whose perspective we actually share – is Jean le Flambeur, master thief. After being rescued by Miele (whose story is quite hazy, one of my few issues with the book as a whole) to undertake a theft, they travel to Mars, where Jean begins to remember things long forgotten that threaten to undermine… everything. I quite liked Jean; he’s from the urbane, amusing thief mould, with enough complexity that he never feels like a stereotype. In Jean’s story there are elements of the classic caper, like The Italian Job: we like the thief, and although we know stealing is wrong we’re still basically cheering him on. I enjoyed finding out more of his back-story, which deepened his complexity without changing the basics of who he is.

The other perspective that dominates the book is that of Isidore, a student moonlighting as a detective. His sections of the book have a detective noir feel that nicely complements Jean’s story. Isidore is commissioned to investigate a crime that hasn’t happened yet, which brings him into contact with all sorts of interesting people. And along with his semi-professional life, the reader is also brought into his personal life, made particularly difficult by the fact that he is dating a girl from the zoku colony – and zoku don’t usually mix with native Martians. Difficulties, of course, ensue. Again, I really liked Isidore. I was a bit concerned that he would turn out to be a naïve boy-wonder, but thankfully he’s a much better constructed character than that.

As a native of Mars, the reader gets a more intimate understanding of the place through Isidore than is possible from Jean’s (and Miele’s) tourist perspective; and a weird place it is, too. Isidore lives in a city floating above the surface of the planet; a city where rather than money, the inhabitants trade in time. (Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase time-poor.) Once your time is up, you become a Quiet for some unexplained period of time: physically changed into whatever sort of machine is required for the city’s maintenance, from an Atlas supporting the whole place to merely a personal servant. And then you get changed back, but of course the experience can’t help but have altered you. The other fascinating feature of Martian society is the privacy aspect. Everyone has a gevulot: essentially a privacy screen with different levels, allowing you to do everything from be visible to absolutely everyone, to completely invisible, with shades in between. In light of current concerns over personal privacy, this is an intriguing idea – as is the idea of choosing how much of your information is available to the people you meet. Quite the reverse of Facebook then.

The plot, essentially, revolves around the theft that Jean is to undertake, which isn’t actually revealed for quite some time. Weaved through this, though, are at least two love stories, a political discussion, several explorations of the self, and a bucketload of really cool and mind-blowing technology. So it’s not a simple caper-on-Mars story. In fact it’s not a simple anything; this is definitely not the book to give someone who has never read any science fiction. There is a lot of science in this book; it expects at least a passing knowledge of quantum mechanics and entanglement theory, as well as other bits and pieces. And it’s one of those books where many disparate parts only come together at the end – if you’re not aware of how that style works, this could be a very annoying book.

Rajaniemi has had numerous short stories published, but this is his debut novel. There has been a lot of hype about it being the best debut of 2010, and indeed one of the best science fiction books of 2010, period. For a debut, it is fantastic, but I am not convinced about it being one of the best books of the year. It’s certainly very good: the characters are mostly multi-faceted and well-developed, the plot is well-paced, and his vision of Mars is wonderfully imaginative. However, as I said before, I was disappointed that Miele is not more fully explained – there are tantalising hints about her background, but not enough to really come to grips with her motivations. Given that she is a fairly major character, this is a flaw. My other problem is with the conclusion. It bugged me. A lot. I felt that it came out of nowhere, and that it did not add to the plot. It was a disappointing note on which to end. As is this.