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REVIEW: Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

REVIEW SUMMARY: A welcome return to the author’s Revelation Space universe for this reader.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of 8 stories set in the Revelation Space universe.

PROS: Not a bad batch in the bunch.
CONS: Some stories stronger than others.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a must-read collection for fans of Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels.

I’ve been reading the work of Alastair Reynolds for the past few years, ever since he made a splash with his debut novel Revelation Space. The sequels Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap soon followed, as well as an excellent standalone novel set in the same universe, Chasm City.

Along the way, Reynolds has also written several pieces of short fiction set in that milieu. (Yes, I said “milieu”.) These are mostly collected in Galactic North. (The remaining two stories are first-rate novellas which are bound together as Diamond Dogs & Turquoise Days).

I’ve read some of the stories in Galactic North before, as noted below, but the others I was eager to try out. (Yes, I said “eager”. Sure, it’s not as pretentious as “milieu”, but I used it anyway.) As usual, the author does not disappoint. His ideas are big and scientifically plausible, the mood of his stories is consistent (dark space opera with a hint of the bizarre), and he writes stories that are unsuspecting in their impact and thoroughly entertaining.

Individual story reviews follow…

[“Great Wall of Mars” was originally read in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #18 edited by Gardner Dozois, but since I did not record my impressions, I reread it for this review.] A tense diplomatic mission to avoid war is the focus of “Great Wall of Mars”. The Coalition sends Clavain to Mars with a neutral member of the Demarchist faction to negotiate with the Martian Conjoiner colony. The colony exists within a huge wall encompassing an area big enough to have its own weather patterns. The wall itself is controlled by a savant Conjoiner named Felka. The Conjoiners, a nanotech-enabled hive mind, are represented by Galiana who was Clavain’s captor during a past skirmish on Phobos. This is a lot of background to set up and, while worthwhile, it takes about half the story to do so. This slowed down the story somewhat, despite a really dramatic sequence involving mechanical versions of Dune’s sandworms. Betrayal kicks the story up a notch and Clavain must think hard about allegiances when he learns of true Conjoiner plans.

[“Glacial” was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #19 edited by Gardner Dozois. What follows is what I said then.]

In “Glacial,” a settlement mission learns that a planet was already settled by humans a century ago. However, a mysterious virus has wiped out the entire settlement except for one man. Although the first half of this story was somewhat slow, it kicked in with the mystery and picked up. Overall, it did not really advance or lend anything to the Revelation Space universe. Note: This story is a sequel to “Great Wall of Mars”. The settlers are the Conjoiners and consist of the cast from that previous story (Clavain, Galiana and Felka).

In A Spy in Europa,” one of Jupiter’s moons is the setting for a control struggle being played out between human factions: the Demarhcists and Gilgamesh Isis. Vargovic is an agent of Gilgamesh and has been assigned to meet with Cholok, another Gilgamesh spy who needs help smuggling something valuable off Europa. If there is any theme in this story, it is deception; spies, ulterior motives and hidden agendas abound. Along the way, we also learn of the mythical creatures known as the Denizens, genetically bred to be underwater slaves. All of this combines into a very good spy story with a nice twist at the end.

“Weather” takes place aboard an Ultra ship known as Petronel. The point of view is from the shipmaster, Inigo, who finds a girl on a pirate ship. (He nicknames her Weather.) She is a Conjoiner, one of a human faction that alters their neural pathways to form a hive mind. Weather has been cut-off from her brethren via long distances. Inigo’s Captain, Van Ness, holds much animosity towards Conjoiners since they long ago converted his wife to be one of them. But Weather may be the ship’s only hope of surviving space pirates and the mysterious Conjoiner technology that drives the Petronel. This sets the stage quite nicely for some dramatic scenes, like when Weather comes between Inigo and the Captain, or when the Captain finally faces Weather. This is not to slight the riveting and tense opening scenes where the Petronel struggles to avoid a pursuing pirate ship. Amidst all of this is the hard sf sense of wonder that I’ve come to expect from a Reynolds story. There are huge ships, cool tech, and best of all: real-world physics principles.

“Dilation Sleep” is the earliest story written in the Revelation Space universe and correspondingly shows the some initial unsteadiness of universe and perhaps the writer as well. A single sleeper ship crew member in cryo-sleep is woken earlier than the rest, a certain sign of impending (though not immediate) trouble. As Uri learns of the circumstances surrounding his awakening, there are signs that the ship is haunted. Even this early in the author’s writing career, the mainstays of the universe were born: the Melding Plague, the Sylveste family, Yellowstone, Epsilon Eradni, and more. While this story doesn’t show the sure hand of the more experienced author to come, it is nonetheless a good read and shows that Reynolds has been thinking big since the beginning.

Reynolds is in extremely fine form with “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary,” a sequel (of sorts) to the equally well-done story “Diamond Dogs“. Here, a curator of his own personal bestiary in Chasm City succumbs to petty jealousy and enters into a game of one-upmanship with a rival. His ultimate quest is for a long lost Denizen, an aquatic creature that was genetically engineered by Demarchists log ago on Europa. The reader, meanwhile, is taken through twists and turns of past history, with hints being dropped about characters, creatures and factions of past novels and stories. It’s when a link back to “Diamond Dogs” appears that this story will stun you and the creative genius of the author is made apparent. There’s even a rest stop into creepiness when Carl Grafenwalder and Ursual Goodglass take pleasure in the pain of another. What a superb story.

[“Nightingale” was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois. What follows is what I said then.]

In “Nightingale,” a team of war veterans attempts to retrieve a war criminal (who is supposed to be dead) from a massive hospital spaceship (that was supposed to have been destroyed). This story reminds me of why I like Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe so much. Not only do we get some rich backgrounds of the world – with a few nods to Demarchists, Ultras, Conjoiners, Sky Hausmann and Sky’s Edge – but we also get a riveting story. Dexia Scarrow, the narrator, is hired by a man with connections to join him and other war veterans in bringing Colonel Brandon Jax to justice. It matters not what he did, exactly; it’s enough to know he’s the bad guy. The story is about their mission to the supposedly-destroyed hospital ship Nightingale. While the first act sets up the premise and drops some remembered names, the second kicks in with the action and suspense. Even though the premise felt like a less-dangerous version Reynolds’ own “Diamond Dogs” (if you’re going to crib from yourself, crib the best), the story was no less suspenseful. The final act contains the unveiling of the intriguing mystery, a minor plot twist that readers familiar with Reynolds work may see coming, a well-handled anti-war message, and an ending that puts other short stories to shame. Well done.

[“Galactic North” was originally reviewed in Space Soldiers edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois. What follows is what I said then.]

In “Galactic North,” a spaceship carrying 20,000 colonists in reefersleep is attacked by pirates who kill most of the colonists and take the others hostage. Captain Irravel Veda vows revenge and, together with an alien Conjoiner and a betrayed pirate, tracks down the assailant through millennia. Along the way, they discover a galactic plague that threatens the galaxy. This is another excellent story by Reynolds, this one also set in the Revelation Space universe. Making appearances are the Conjoiners, the Pattern Jugglers and the planet Yellowstone. The first half of the story (when Captain Veda was driven by revenge and when there were lots of plot twists) was better paced than the second half (the time skips were much larger and the revenge took a back seat to the new galactic threat), but even so, it still doesn’t get much better than this.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on REVIEW: Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

  1. Yes – Alastair Reynolds has some cool stuff.  I very much enjoyed Revelation Space and am looking forward to reading some of the other stories and books you have listed here.


    I also wanted to let you know that “A Spy in Europa” is freely available online at Infinity Plus – go check it out and get a taste of what his short stories are like!

  2. Thanks, Rusty! Post updated.

  3. I read CENTURY RAIN and enjoyed it immensely, even though I later learned it wasn’t one of his stronger stories. but this post makes me hungry for more.

  4. For anyone that wants to get into the Revelation Space universe this is THE book to start out with. While the stories area  touch uneven (“Dilatition Sleep” comes across easily as early work) this fills in so much history and detail about the novels that I personally felt that this is a very much “must read”.

    Excellent work and some really fascinating space opera.

  5. Yes, he’s one of the best authors you can read for that old SF “sense-a-wonda”.  I’ve read all he’s written and enjoy them all.  My particular favorite is CHASM CITY.  maybe because it’s a stand-alone novel yet still placed in the REVELATION SPACE universe.  I’m looking forward to HOUSE OF SUNS.  It’s sitting on my bookshelf but so is LAVINIA by LeGuin, THE DRAGONS OF BABEL by Swanwick, MATTER by Banks and too many others.  Let’s see, what am I in the mood for…?

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