Book Review: Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of modern science fiction’s most celebrated writers. Not everybody’s cup of tea, even seasoned fans such as myself sometimes find his work heavy going, he is a master of what is known as New Space Opera who fuses hard science fiction with social commentary and good old fashioned “sense of wonder” storytelling.

This is a collection of short(ish) stories not set in the Revelation Space universe and therefore showcasing the diverse worlds of his imagination. There are fourteen stories in all and rather than an intro from the writer, there are some closing thoughts. This works rather well in that it is easier to keep everything in context with the story still fresh in the mind. I’m not going to summarise all of them, just those that stand out.

The Real Story is first up. Two old acquaintances meet up in a coffee shop on Mars’ great rift: The Valles Marineris. What I love about this story is that Mars is a vibrant planet to live on. Here is the tourist centre with expensive hotels, here is the luxury of Dubai, here is a cosmopolitan city. Too often in scifi it is a harsh place to live, desolate and industrialised – like Sunderland but with less rain. Enough dead alien civilisation to delight an archaeologist like me, this is a good start to the volume.

The second story is Beyond the Aquila Rift about a routine journey that goes horribly wrong when a ship ends up in the wrong place – long distance travel is engaged through a kind of portal system known as Aperture Links. The crew are stranded and trying to figure out how to get to their destination while at the same time trying to settle in for a good length of time. Something isn’t right though…

Signal to noise is the fourth in the collection. New technology has been developed which means that we can send people, objects, information and even make phone calls across alternate realities. It was limited to research institutes but eventually the technology became commonplace. When the protagonist’s wife is killed in a car accident, he is offered the chance to go through into a reality where his wife did not die.

Cardiff Afterlife is one of the volume’s very short tales. In another reality, Cardiff has been destroyed; a very large bomb placed at the Millenium Stadium has put an end to the city. The main character has to enter the city through “presence”, which means that a person can transfer their conscience into a living body, a dead body or even a robot to get to places otherwise inaccessible in an alternate dimension.

Then follows a trio of interlinked stories featuring Merln. In Hideaway, the crew of a small ship take shelter on a moon to evade a warfleet. Minla’s Flowers discusses hydroponics as a technology for colonising other worlds and Merlin’s Gun speculates on the mysteries of gamma ray bursts. As stand alone stories they are pretty average but taken together they create a rich universe in a short space so I can understand why they are grouped together and his commentary (which is at the end of each story) discusses the three together.

Angels of Ashes takes place at a temple on Mars when a former acolyte is summoned to the death bed of his mentor. It explores the intertwined concepts of God, Quantum Mechanics and a supernova and it finishes on a holy war in what is a story laden with religious tension. A story that comes later in the collection, Everlasting, is similar in plot and concept. It handles the “Many Worlds Theory” in an enlightening manner. It is one of the least scifi stories in the collection and would be perfect material for an episode of something like The Outer Limits.

Digital to Analogue is a very short piece about a virus transmitted on the soundwaves of experimental music. It sounds weird and closer to China Mieville than the hard sci fi of Reynolds but it does work.

Zima Blue, the titular and final short in the volume, sees the return of journalist Carrie Clay invited to an unremarkable world to take an exlusive interview with the artist Zima before he retires.

If I am honest, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the collection – it just didn’t work for me. Reynolds is big on ideas and I’d rather not read high concept in short fiction format; that is why his door-step sized novels work so well – you can really get your teeth into some complex science or speculative ideas about what technologies our future might hold and it feels rewarding because of it. You read a few chapters… you go away… it plays on your mind… you absorb it… you get it and then you go back to read a few more chapters. They are never page turners (except perhaps for Century Rain.

An interesting collection with some great ideas but I think I’ll stick with his novels in future.

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