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.