Tag Archives: Alastair Reynolds

THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

The Medusa ChroniclesI fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.

Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysCentury RainPushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.

Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!

I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.

Exhibit A.
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SLOW BULLETS – Alastair Reynolds (2015)

Slow BulletsFirst things first: when I received this book after ordering it, it felt like a total rip off. Slow Bullets is not much more than a short story printed in a large font to spread it out over 190 pages, and then sold for the price of a regular novel, although it’s hardly a novelette.

Marketing & packaging aside, the content doesn’t amount to much. Slow Bullets is underdeveloped. Not a lot happens, it’s basically a couple of people waking up on a sleeper ship without knowing where they are and what year it is. They then find out because someone tells them, and then they try to cope with the fact that the ship’s vast memory banks are slowly degenerating.

Memory is the theme of this book, but it’s hardly explored. Reynolds just scratches the surface. What’s the interplay between the memories kept in the slow bullets and people’s real brain memories? It’s never explained nor shown. These slow bullets are personal thumb drives that are inserted with a kind of gun and move on their own through the body to their designated spot someplace in the chest. For a supposedly highly developed star faring culture with automatic robot surgeons that’s a messy and lengthy way of inserting a memory bank. Again, Reynolds didn’t think a seemingly nice idea through, why would he, since it makes for a good title, and an early torture scene! At the end, there’s a page and a half about the link between memory and identity, but again, it’s hardly developed and as a result it doesn’t have depth.

To add insult to injury, there’s some superficial stuff about religion, since part of the war in Slow Bullets was about “the Book” and its different interpretations. We even get 2 pages (1% of the page count) full of insightful discussion of this “the Book”, that goes like this:

character 1: There’s also a lot of common sense in it. Just basic good advice for living a decent life, being kind, thinking of your neighbours and so on. My father was a devout man, but also honest in his business dealings. He took that from the Book, even though it brought trouble on us as a family.

character 2: Then the Book can damage, if you follow it too literally.

Nuff said.

This entire booklet felt like a draft, trying to put 2 or 3 ideas randomly together, and not even expanding upon them. The sad thing is that this could have been a great story, one that did live up to the blurb of the back cover (“a vast conflict between hundreds of worlds…”), but then it would have needed at least 4 times as many pages. Slow Bullets never felt vast, and never felt like something written by one of the “mastersingers of Space Opera”.

No character development. No world building. Totally random aliens with godlike powers that only serve as the explanation for the back story, they are a kind of ‘reversed’ deus ex machina.

Readers new to Reynolds better start with Revelation Space or House of Suns, and Reynolds veterans shouldn’t start with too high expectations – I, for one, was disappointed.

originally written on the 27th of September, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

CENTURY RAIN – Alastair Reynolds (2004)

Century RainNot Reynolds’ best at all, but not a disappointment like both Pushing Ice and Terminal World.

Basically an original take on time travel that isn’t time travel, and some other likable SF ideas, coupled with a detective story. Fast moving and interesting enough to keep oneself entertained, albeit predictable. Near the final 200 pages (of 600), it becomes a bit too much though, with lots of action that drags at times, and basically always is resolved by yet another deus-ex-machina.

The book should’ve been 100 pages shorter, and it had been better if some stuff hadn’t survived the cut, like the Amusica virus, that doesn’t advance the story one bit and has a silly back story. Reading the acknowledgements at the novel’s end, Reynolds read some Oliver Sacks and wanted to incorporate some of it, willy nilly.

The characters are also very good at guessing key plot elements.

A final remark, on the “war babies” – vicious adversaries to the protagonists. Evidently, Reynolds kind of reverse engineered a familiar trope in horror movies: scary ghoulish children, like those in The Grudge, are given a credible SF back story. If it weren’t so obvious, it might have worked well, evoking a shiver instead of a chuckle. Reynolds has the tendency to give similar nods to popular culture in other works as well, and it never works.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a starting point for Reynolds’ newbies, but I did enjoy it. I just hope he returns to the Revelation Space or House Of Suns universes before he decides writing a sequel to Century Rain.

originally written on the 11th of July, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

PUSHING ICE – Alastair Reynolds (2005)

Pushing IceAfter Terminal World, this is the second disappointing book I read by Reynolds. Long story short: while there is a great story in this book (a lot better than the story of Terminal World), it is marred by a terrible and totally unbelievable subplot involving the 2 protagonists behaving like children, and nobody of the crew minding that. That’s a crying shame, because it doesn’t do justice to the story’s potential and it takes a lot of fun out of the reading, since it’s so damn irritating. With some good editing, the 515 pages of Pushing Ice could have been reduced to an excellent page-turner of 350 pages.

I seriously considered giving up after 150 pages, pushed on anyhow, but was or irritated or bored out of my mind, because of serious drag issues and bad characterization. Childlike behaviour and bad decision-making aplenty, plus the fact that the numerous side characters were – aside from their names – simply indistinguishable from each other.

Things got better in the final 4th of the book, because the bigger story arc became more dominant, but in the finale the conflict between the protagonists again played, and some characters started to behave utterly stupid again. It felt like watching Prometheus.

The ending leaves room for a sequel. If Reynolds decides to come back to this universe, I hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes he made in this book.

So, another Reynolds’ book that will go to the second-hand shop. I haven’t given up on him though: I thought the Revelation Space trilogy was overall brilliant, as was House of Suns. I still have some hope for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Chasm CityThe Perfect and Slow Bullets.

Reynolds veterans might give this a go, since the book does have lots of neat ideas sprinkled around in it, but be aware of what I’ve written above. All other space opera/hard SF fans: first try if Revelation Space or House Of Suns appeals to you.

originally written on the 20th of June, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

TERMINAL WORLD – Alastair Reynolds (2010)

terminal worldAs I’m a fan of its author, this book was a major disappointment. It’s not the different subject matter that makes this a lesser Reynolds’ book, but quite a lot of problems on a structural level. While the book starts promising, it quickly deteriorates, and I had to force myself through the final half.

Terminal World desperately needs major editing: it’s too long, and there’s way, way too much repetition in the dialogue, and in the story as well: how many times do we have to read sentences about the main character, some other character and the word “trust”? Certain plot elements are repeatedly explained in expositionary dialogue again and again. It makes the reading boring.

It also needs a better back story: for the bulk of the book, the true nature of the world wasn’t clear to me. The attempts to provide back story felt a bit haphazard, and as painting by numbers: it feels like Reynolds started with all kinds of neat ideas and sketches, threw them all together, ultimately realized he had to provide a bit more back story, yet couldn’t really deliver. One of Reynolds’ strengths always was a high degree of believability, no matter how outrageous the ideas. That quality is lacking in Terminal World.

Most importantly, the book lacks focus. I was 180 pages in, and still I didn’t know what the story was about, except for the protagonist fleeing for some unclear reason from some unclear enemy. Again, Reynolds throws around a lot of ideas and pop culture tropes (Mad Max, witches, cyborgs, steampunk lung machines, posthuman angels …), but it’s just too much, and ideas or plotlines often are quickly abandoned – why not edit them out totally? Reynolds should have cut back a lot of stuff, and focussed on the main story. Take the “carnivorgs”. Nice wordplay, but bad storytelling: too random, and not needed for the story at all. It only diverts attention and doesn’t contribute a thing, except a mild smirk from the reader, since, come on, “carnivorgs”? The fact that Reynolds feels the need to explicitly explain it later on – “carnivorous cyborgs” – only makes it even stupider. The magic tectomancer part should have been cut back too. It’s not well conceived, and it reeks of Frank Herbert: genetic stuff giving people extraordinary powers. In Dune it was done right, more or less believable. Here it just looks like yet another a coincidence on top of everything else. It should’ve been cut back too, and replaced by something better to drive the story to its ending.

The book could’ve benefitted from shifts in perspective and jumps in time. Now it follows one protagonist chronologically the full 490 pages, and sadly, Quillon isn’t a very interesting character. Things just seem to happen to him, and he more or less only goes with the flow. Not somebody you root for as a reader. He could’ve benefitted from a more detailed back story, maybe flashbacks to that. There’s some romance hidden in his past, but it doesn’t come out and doesn’t make for emotions readers can cling to.

There’s a great novel in here somewhere, but Reynolds didn’t bring it out this time, nor did the publisher’s editors do their job. A missed opportunity. Sad, especially for readers who would judge Reynolds based on this book alone: House of Suns and the Revelation Space-trilogy are thrilling, well-crafted books. Definitely avoid as your first contact with Alastair Reynolds.

originally written on the 17th of April, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS – Alastair Reynolds (2003)

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysThis book contains 2 novellas, loosely connected. Both are situated in the Revelation Space universe.

Diamond Dogs (130 pages) is the most “gothic” story I’ve read of Reynolds so far. It is about a sort of cross between the Shrike (of Hyperion-fame) and the Cube (the movie), visited by steampunkish Frankensteinian humans. It feels a bit like an exercise to write a Cube-like story (about an intriguing mysterious structure filled with deadly traps) and amounts mainly to the protagonists going from chamber to chamber. It’s okay, but nothing compared to Reynolds’ longer fiction, and because of the above mentioned influences, it feels totally out of place in the Revelation Space universe.  (2/5)

Turquoise Days (100 pages) is a lot better than the first story. It’s about a colony doing research on the Pattern Jugglers, massive databases made of alien biomass floating in oceans on distant planets. Their peaceful existence is disturbed by the impending arrival of an Ultra ship.  (3/5)

This collection is okay: fun and quickly read, but not a good place to start your exploration of Alastair Reynolds’ amazing work set in the same universe. My advice: start with Revelation Space proper, and if that clicks, you’ll end up reading this anyway.

originally written on the 2nd of March, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

HOUSE OF SUNS – Alastair Reynolds (2008)

House Of SunsThis might be one of my favorite stand alone SF books ever. I was already a big fan of Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, and this book proves all the more what a fantastic author he can be, also when he limits himself to just 500 pages.

It’s set in a different universe than the RS-books, and broadly deals with 6 million year old human characters defending their line of explorers against extinction. The book has everything: a good mystery, a love story, a great chase sequence, good action, a possible mole, a whodunnit, a sense of wonder, and even a snippet of well done fantasy in a virtual reality sub-plotline. It also has some of the greatest robot characters I’ve come across.

What this book does very well is tell a great story, without focussing too much on the science or technology. A lot of it is implied, without it being as hard SF as Revelation Space was. That’s what you get when you tell a story with 6-million year characters: they’ve seen it all, and the science & technology is just like breathing air for them: for them, everything is normal as can be, dealing with all purpose nano-machines in a tube, or state of the art neural uplinks to ships with full on AI, and the book succeeds really well in translating that feeling of naturalness, without all the exposition it needs in a Banks’ Culture novel, or even Reynolds’ own RS trilogy.

Another plus is the prose: Reynolds really writes elegantly here, with at times gripping, beautiful similes. The construction of the story is that of a writer at the height of his powers too: well done, without being a construction for the sake of itself. There are no real loose ends, and everything ties together neatly.

House of Suns starts off a bit slow, but after about 70 pages the book turns into a genuine page turner. It’s a good place to start if you haven’t read any Reynolds. It has the benefit of being a relatively short stand alone book: you don’t need to invest reading 1500 pages to get to the thrilling, moving conclusion. I’m not sure if I like this more than the entire RS-trilogy, I’ll have to reread everything in a couple of years.

Some argue Reynolds touches on a lot in this book, but doesn’t work out everything. But there’s no need for that, the focus is this story. It’s partly what I like about it: the book is painted on very broad canvas, but still just features one, comprehensive, well-done scene. I definitely hope he’ll someday write another book set in the same universe: there’s enough that would merit other novels of their own, or even a sequel to this story.

(Update 10/2018: After some terrible reading experiences with some of his other novels, I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential. All the reviews are here, and aside from the Revelation Space books, and this one, they are all essentially negative.)

originally written on the 25th of December, 2014

ABSOLUTION GAP – Alastair Reynolds (2003)

Absolution GapAbsolution Gap, the third and final book of the Revelation Space-trilogy, is a stunning conclusion to a stunning series. This is SF at its best: big ideas, highly imaginative, exciting, even poetic at times. It’s filled with interesting characters, and the book is a page turner as well. It might have been a bit shorter, but not by much. Most of its 695 pages are fun & engaging, and the attention to detail pays off.

While the first book focused on Ultras (augmented humans living on trade ships, crusing lonely between the stars), and the second book on Conjoiners (hyperevolved humans living a hive-like society, not lonely at all), this book has a bit of everything, including surprising roles for the Pattern Jugglers (an alien race that looks like sea weed) and a pig bred for its organs. The connections I formed with some of the recurring cast also made this the most emotional part of the series. Star of this book is the Nostalgia for Infinity, the ship that also played a role in the previous books, and turns out to be the main character of the entire series.

As a testimony to Reynolds’ abilities, the 3 books are pretty different: they are not just one long novel split in 3 parts, but they tell 3 distinct stories, that succeed each other logically and chronologically. While the end of the first book felt a bit rushed at times, the ending to the series is breathtaking and action packed, yet it remains focussed on the characters themselves – the Big Conclusion to the battle with the Inhibitors takes second place, as an afterthought.

What Reynolds manages to do exceptionally well is build a believable story of us humans being among the stars in a few centuries, very realistic yet totally weird and fantastic and a bit gothic at the same time, with science that might come to pass, weird and fantastic too.

On top of all that, Reynolds’ language is often beautiful in this book, using well chosen, original metaphors.

Fans of Banks and ‘hard’ space opera should not hesitate, and start Revelation Space, the first book. As a series, this is among the best SF I have read. As a book, this probably is the best of the trilogy. It’s a crying shame most of Reynolds’ later books don’t hold up like these.

originally written on the 15th of November, 2014

REDEMPTION ARK – Alastair Reynolds (2002)

Redemption ArkThis is gold. It’s better than the first book in the Revelation Space-trilogy, and that was gold too. Redemption Ark is more high-paced. It’s full of rich ideas and has some great characters, and this time focusses more on Conjoiner society (humans that evolved into a Borg-like hive mind) in a storyline that continues the threat of the Inhibitors.

This book has the best chase scene I’ve ever read (or seen on a screen for that matter), it lasts for several chapters, and it’s between 2 starships traveling just below the speed of light.

What Reynolds manages to do so well is actually convey what interstellar travel and battle would mean for humans that haven’t invented faster-than-light-travel. This is true hard SF.

The conclusion to this trilogy is sitting on my shelves, but I’m first going to read a few other books, just to savour the moment. I just don’t want this story to end. Luckily there are a few other books set in the same universe.

originally written on the 27th of September, 2014