Review & story-by-story thoughts: Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds

zb(Feel free to skip the review text and go straight to my story-by-story thoughts)

A while back I was toying with the silly notion that an author’s short story collection is a bit like an album, and that the stories within are individual songs: varying in length, style and quality. While reading the collection Zima Blue by my favourite SF author Alastair Reynolds, I started to think about a concept album based on the collection, with songs having the same titles and coming in the same order as they are in the book, with each song reflecting somewhat the tone and content of each story. Yeah I know, what a wank. I couldn’t shake the idea though.

So I was thinking about what kind of album Zima Blue would sound like, and — maybe because they’re my favourite band, and their otherworldly lyrics and production have earned them the label “space-rock” — I thought it might end up a bit like a Muse album: bombastic, spacey, dark, catchy. And British. As I read each story I tried to think what kind of song it would be.

Stories like “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, “Angels of Ashes” and “Spirey and the Queen” would be the punchy, tight songs with slick production that stick in your head and get a lot of radio play, while “Signal to Noise” would be a slower, stripped-down affair with more emotional lyrics (and “Cardiff Afterlife” would be its outro, or refrain, repeating the same theme but with a darker feel). “Understanding Space and Time” would be a kind of cheesy ballad that Muse often does (eg: the song “Invincible” from Black Holes and Revelations), that inevitably becomes bigger and rockier as the song goes on.

The album’s centrepiece would be the three-track rock epic made up of “Hideaway”, “Minla’s Flowers” and “Merlin’s Gun”, with a symphonic structure, layers of strings and orchestration, and a choir or two. Basically the album’s version of “Exogenesis Symphony” from the album The Resistance. “Everlasting” however would be the short, kind of bland song that really should have been a b-side. And “Zima Blue” would end the album on a rather introspective note. You know the kind of song that a lot of bands save for last on their albums.

If you’re not rolling your eyes by now, you can apply this idea to Reynolds’ other collections. Galactic North is obviously a concept album, as all the stories are set in the same universe. The limited edition Deep Navigation fills in the gaps by collecting the stories that were left out of the other two for whatever reason; so it’s a bit like a b-side collection. But the metaphor kind of breaks down when you think too hard on it. Wouldn’t a short story collection be more of a greatest-hits compilation, due to the period of time it covers? And what does that make individual novels? Really long songs?

Yeah it’s kind of dumb. Rather than continue, I’m just going to talk about the stories as stories from now on. Below are my thoughts on each story, which I wrote as I read them, which is why they start brief and get longer as I progressed. I’ve put an asterisk next to the ones which I thought were the best of the book. Last thoughts: an excellent collection, reminding me more and more why I love Reynolds as an author. Pity about that one bad story, though.


NB: Asterisks (*) before titles indicate the stories I thought were best of the lot.

The Real Story – Off to a good start with an interesting story about identity and a colonized Mars. I can see elements in the worldbuilding that were reused in/from Chasm City (not sure which came first).

*Beyond the Aquila Rift – Starts out like a fresh take on Pohl’s Gateway, turns bittersweet, then turns again into something disturbing. Space opera of the highest quality in only 35 pages!

Enola – A short but sweet story about AI, compassion, and post-apocalyptic Sydney!

Signal to Noise – A rather sad story involving the death of a spouse, the quantum-dialling of parallel universes, and the sending of sensory data between them. Greg Egan does this kind of story better, I think.

Cardiff Afterlife – A tiny little vignette looking at the darker side of the technology from the previous story. Also very Greg Egan-esque, also okay.

*Hideaway – The first of three stories featuring the character Merlin. A gripping astrophysical mystery of the kind that Reynolds does best, with a fantastic universe for a backdrop and a killer action centerpiece set in the stormy atmosphere of a gas giant. It’s everything that makes Reynolds’ books brilliant distilled into a 45 page novella.

Minla’s Flowers – A lot to like about this novella. The character Merlin is great, he reminds me of the benevolent travelers of the novel House Of Suns, in his adventures helping lesser civilizations. I also loved the mystery of the whetstone, and the multiple meanings of the novella’s title. It’s a story format I’ve seen before (main character observes the evolution of a culture while traveling through time, in a sense) but done so well by Reynolds.

*Merlin’s Gun – A really cool final chapter of the Merlin saga, with great action and revelations. And I recognised the star system that they arrive in for the story’s climax! Sneaky Alastair Reynolds! I agree with Reynolds (in his post-story notes) that this saga is like Revelation Space turned up to 11. I hope he writes more and more stories in this setting.

*Angels of Ashes – The anthropic principle as applied to asymmetrical supernovae; robots; aliens; quantum probability; holy wars on Mars… WHY IS THIS NOT A FULL LENGTH NOVEL? (PS: I can definitely see parallels between the religions/founders in this story and the novel Absolution Gap)

*Spirey and the Queen – A space opera story of rather a different flavour to Reynolds’ usual fare, thanks to a bucketload of inventive jargon like “neurodisney” and “quackdrive”. Feels a bit Miéville-ish in that way. The future history of this story is fascinating (humanity divided into corporate factions with logos et al), and I enjoyed the themes of surprisingly benevolent AI evolving beyond the petty wars of humans.

Understanding Space and Time – A story that starts off about the last human alive having cosmological conversations with an either holographic or hallucinated Elton John; then moves exponentially through both time and increasing alien weirdness. The story has a certain cheekiness about it that feels like Douglas Adams or Red Dwarf, although slightly more sombre in its subject material. I have to wonder though, why Elton John?

Digital to Analogue – A disappointingly weak (but short) story involving viral dance music, mainly made up of a lot of musical/audio engineering jargon. Kind of similar to a few stories I’ve seen China Miéville do. But it’s from very early on in Reynolds’ career so I can forgive how silly/underdeveloped it is. I don’t know whether it speaks more to my tastes or to Reynolds’ strong areas, but none of this collection’s stories set on Earth are anywhere near as good as the off-world ones.

Everlasting – Groan. Yet another story about quantum probabilities and many worlds theory. Hardly interesting at all, in ideas, setting or characters. This is probably the worst story in an otherwise brilliant collection.

*Zima Blue – A damn clever idea for a story, and I’m happy to see the return of future reporter superstar Carrie Clay. The idea of an artist capturing the attention of humanity with his bigger and (ridiculously) bigger artworks, only for the meaning behind them to be something so humble and touching, was top-notch. A great final story in this fantastic collection.

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