Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zima Blue & Other Stories: Review

Alastair Reynolds is apparently a fairly big deal in recent science fiction.  The fact that I didn't know this and, in fact, didn't even know his name before picking up his Zima Blue & Other Stories for the A-Z Reading Challenge (X, and Z are always such devilish letters to find interesting books for...), well, that just goes to show how out of touch I've been from the SF world.

Reynolds is a British science fiction writer.  I have to admit that my SF reading has been very heavily American--with Douglas Adams, Arthur C Clarke and H. G. Wells being my primary authors from across the pond.  According to the interwebs, he specializes in dark hard science fiction and space opera and has won the BSFA award for best novel as well as being nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Hugo Award for Best Novella, Locus Award for Best First Novel, Locus Award for Best Collection.  This collection most definitely represents his affinity for dark hard science fiction.

There is a lot of war here...war dependent on all sorts of scientific weaponry that I don't even pretend to understand.  War between various offshoots of the human race as well as war against mysterious "others" who may or may not be evil aliens.  These are the darkest of the stories as we try to figure out who the bad guys really are.  The best stories of the collection--"Signal to Noise," "Angels of Ashes," "Understanding Space & Time" and "Zima Blue" --manage to mix that dedication to hard science with interesting human stories without allowing the scientific details to overshadow the human.  Among them, my favorite is "Understanding Space & Time"--I love the infusion of Elton John and "Rocket Man" into the story.  I am also interested in the main character's search for enlightenment and how Reynolds ties that into quantum physics.  

While the two related stories "Hideaway" and "Merlin's Gun" also have a good story to tell, I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what the heck all these terms meant.  I was distracted to the point that the denouement in each case lost much of its punch.  I also think it would have helped if the stories had appeared in the order they were written--"Merlin's Gun" first, followed by its prequel, "Hideaway."  Many of the confusing details in "Hideaway" would have been much clearer.

I'm not adverse to hard science fiction.  I do think, however, that stories that depend on it and which employ author-generated terms to explain such science should succinctly explain the terms.  No long, drawn-out lectures--just enough to let the average reader understand what's going on.  That's a difficult task for a short story, and that may explain why most of the world-building hard science fiction stories that I really appreciate are novel-length rather than short stories. 

All that said, Reynolds is a good story-teller.  I've enjoyed my venture into more recent British science fiction and am very glad that the A-Z Reading Challenge led me to his book.  There are some very ambitious creations here involving alternate timelines, the augmentation of the human memory, and reality itself.  Three and a half stars.

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