BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Zima Blue is a collection of 10 short stories not set in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe.
PROS: All of the stories were excellent and thought-provoking, great hard SF ideas, interesting new universes.
CONS: Some of the characters were a bit weak.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a must read for all fans of Reynolds.
I don’t usually read short story collections, preferring to let John handle those duties. But when those stories are written by Alastair Reynolds, I jumped at the chance to read Zima Blue And Other Stories. If its any indication to you of how enjoyable this book was, I read it over the course of two days, and given my lack of time to read, that’s saying quite a bit. Of course, I was on jury duty (still am), but even so, that doesn’t afford me appreciable much more time to read as you would think. And now, the stories contained:
- The Real Story
- Synopsis – Reporter Carrie Clay is contacted by a mysterious stranger who may, or may not, be the first person to land on Mars. He wants Carrie to set the record straight about the first manned landing on Mars.
- Review – This is the first of two Carrie Clay stories. I can’t really say much more about the story without revealing the conceit behind the stranger, but what follows is Carrie’s experiences with him and her attempts to tell the real story of the crew of the Hydra. The stranger, James Grossart, is sympathetic if a bit strange. Carrie herself isn’t really examined as she is the one telling the story. And while the story of Gossart is the focus here, the universe Reynolds has created is very cool. Mars was once settled by the alien Sloths and their left behind technology has given mankind access to FTL. And Strata City is, in some respects, reminiscent of Chasm City. In fact, this setting is a more optimistic setting than the Revelation Space setting, but is just as widescreen and impressive. This universe shows up again in later stories.
- Beyond The Aquila Rift
- Synopsis – The merchant ship Blue Goose is on a routine cargo run when the alien technology it relies on for FTL travel encounters a ‘routing error’ and sends the Goose thousands of light-years off course.
- Review – This is probably the best story of the bunch. Both the captain, Thom and the reader learn bit-by-bit that not all is as it appears. Seemingly stranded far from home and with little hope to revive his two crewmates, Thom must decide what he wants to do with his life. The result is a poignant tale of love and loss. Add in all the cool tech and this is a sure-fire winner.
- Synopsis – Lucky Kodaira is one of a few human survivors many years after a nuclear apocalypse, called the Hour, living in a city that resembles Sydney, Australia. But Lucky has been having dreams about the Enolas, the seemingly alien machines that fly the skies and drop destruction on the land below. Through her dreams, Lucky discovers who she is and the history leading up to her present time.
- Review – This is, for me, the least interesting of the stories. It does have a rather interesting premise, but the story just doesn’t really do good enough job building up the character of Lucky or of describing the world she inhabits. It looks like Reynolds wanted to use the word ‘Enola’ in a story and so he did. The machine ecology he describes is rather interesting, but its not enough to lift the story up from ‘good, but not great’.
- Signal To Noise
- Synopsis – Mick Leighton is with his friend, Joe Liversedge, working on the machines that allow for communication between quantum realities when he learns of his wife’s death. Mick, who has been separated from his wife for two weeks, is given the opportunity to assume control of another version of himself in a different reality where his wife didn’t die so as to ease his pain at his loss. His alter self agrees to let Mick take control of his body for one week, which is about the length of time the connection will stay open before quantum noise makes communication impossible.
- Review – Signal To Noise shows that Reynolds can, if he chooses, write decent characters. With Mick, Reynolds has created a character that must come to grips with the loss of his wife, but does so with the help of an alternate version of her. The conceit here is that the link between the realities degrades over time, with less and less bandwidth available. This results in Mick losing more and more control of his alternate self, until he is forced to lose his ‘wife’ a second time. But this time, its expected and his time across the quantum gap has given him some closure for his ‘real’ life. StN is a very moving story. And it must be noted that StN is set in a near future Earth and not in a space operatic, widescreen setting.
- Hideaway and Merlin’s Gun
- Synopsis – These two stories are linked, and while written in reverse, they tell the story of Merlin, a future human on the run from the alien Husker menace. In Hideaway, the human ship Starthroat is on the run from a Husker swarm. Unable to use the alien created Way for FTL, they are forced to run at relativistic speeds in normal space. During their flight, another Husker swarm is discovered to in their direct path. With little time to act, half of the humans decide to leave the Starthroat in an attempt to hide in a nearby star system. While their, they discover an anomaly on a gas giant that might afford them a hiding place. Merlin, however, declines to hide, instead he wants to continue trying to unlock the secrets of the Way in the hopes he can, one day, discover the Gun, a weapon of unimaginable power. In Merlin’s Gun, humankind is almost totally destroyed. The Huskers have systematically wiped out fleet after fleet. Sora is the sole survivor from one such fleet. After her escape from the attack, she crash lands in an uninhabited system, only to see a vessel, piloted by Merlin, emerge from the Way and land near her escape pod. In the days before the Huskers regroup for an attack on the system, Sora learns about Merlin and his quest for the gun. But what do you do when you learn the Husker/Human conflict isn’t what you thought and the gun both is and isn’t a weapon?
- Review – These two stories are best read in serial and tell an interesting tale of far future humanity and its war against the Huskers. Reynolds has populated this setting with long dead but technically advanced civilizations, ancient technology, war and imminent humankind destruction. This is the stuff that makes the ‘new’ space opera exciting and interesting, and Reynolds loads it on thick here. Merlin is also an interesting character, with the other humans less so. The revelations about the conflict and the Gun are also cool and unexpected. Reynolds has done a great job of world building here, and I’d like to see more stories set in this universe.
- Angel Of Ashes
- Synopsis – Brother Menendez is brought before the Founder of the Machinehood. Why Ivan, the Founder, asked for a human priest is known only to Ivan, who is also human. What he learns about his faith, the Founding of the Machinehood and the alien Kiwidinok will have a profound effects on the humans who live under the Machinehood rule.
- Review – Angel Of Ashes was a bit confusing to follow because the relationship between humans, machines and the Kiwidinok wasn’t really explained until a bit later in the story. What we get in the first part is almost a confession by the Founder on his death bed about the nature of the founding and his time as the head of the Machinehood. Where things got really interesting was were Reynolds kicked in good old quantum theory and quantum probability and contrasted that against the nature of religious belief. Some good stuff there to make you ponder the secular vs. religious view of the universe. The ending is a bit of a cliffhanger, but the resolution isn’t really what this story is about.
- Spirey And The Queen
- Synopsis – Two warring factions of humans fight for the control of the proto-planetary disk of the star Fomalhaut. The machine ‘wasps’ are used as the instruments of destruction, but what happens when the fight isn’t what you think it is?
- Review – Reynolds manages to pack a lot into a short story. He starts out by giving a lot of background that is needed to make sense of the twists and discoveries later on. That Reynolds managed to do this in an action packed short story is amazing. Not only is the world fully realized, but the story itself is quite engrossing. The only quibble I have is that the reveal of the events of Earth and Sol War III seems to emerge in Spirey fully formed. Otherwise, a very good read.
- Understanding Space And Time
- Synopsis – John Renfrew is the last survivor of humankind. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be on Mars when something wiped out Earth. With almost no hope of rescue, John turns to a holographic Elton John to help him understand space and time.
- Review – If you want long time scale, large scale scope stories, this one is it. Understanding> starts out with John Renfrew turing to physics and math texts to help him while away the time after humanity was wiped out on Earth. With the help of the Mars station’s holographic systems (or is it actually a hallucination?), Renfrew embarks on a journey to discover the Theory of Everything, a.k.a, a Grand Unified Theory. What follows is a story that has the flavor of the ending of the movie A.I. combined with a Stephen Baxter-like scale of thought. Renfrew goes through quite a bit to gain complete understanding, which may end up in his destruction. Reynolds does a nice job in creating a sympathetic character in Renfrew, even when his later incarnation can’t be said to be human in any way. Faced with ultimate understanding but with a high price to pay, what would you do? Renfrew’s decision is unexpected.
- Zima Blue
- Synopsis – Carrie Clay has come to the planet Murjek to witness the unveiling of the artist Zima’s final piece. While there, she manages to interview the artist and discovers the truth behind his existence and the enigmatic color, Zima Blue.
- Review – I can’t say much without spoiling the story. I will say that Zima Blue has borrowed a theme from Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, but done so in a new and unexpected way. This is a story of self-discovery and trying of trying to be the person you are. The motivations of Zima are as powerful as they are sad and I think Zima Blue is a nice way to end the book.
While not set in the Revelation Space universe, space opera fans will find plenty of great stuff to sink their teeth into. Reynolds definitely has knack for creating the widescreen, yet believable, space opera settings that contain all sorts of SF goodness, including hard science underpinnings. If you are a Reynolds fan, or a fan of ‘new’ space opera, you owe it to yourself to read Zima Blue And Other Stories.