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REVIEW: Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

REVIEW SUMMARY: A worthwhile collection for any sf fan, but a must-have for any Reynolds fan.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 15 short stories that span the length of Reynolds’ career.

PROS: Nearly half the stories are excellent; the choice of stories shows Reynolds’ knack for the short form.
CONS: Reynolds first story doesn’t come near the greatness of his later work.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent collection of stories that spans Reynolds’ career.

As a huge fan of Alastair Reynolds’ writing, I was quite excited to get my greedy little hands on his recent NESFA Press collection Deep Navigation and I wasn’t disappointed. The book contains stories that span the length of Reynolds’ career – beginning with his rough-around-the-edges first published story, “Nunivak Snowflakes” (1990). Although this particular story is far from the Reynolds’ best, it does help to put his career in perspective. It also helps show how much he has grown as a writer, as do the numerous other stories that do excel in Deep Navigation which make it a worthwhile collection overall and a must-have for any Reynolds fan. (Having a top-notch cover illustration by John Picacio is also a plus.)

Nearly half of this collection’s stories are standouts. That’s a high ratio for any collection. The standouts are:

  • “Monkey Suit” (2009)
  • “The Fixation” (2007)
  • “Fury” (2008)
  • “Stroboscopic” (1998)
  • “Byrd Land Six” (1995)
  • “On the Oodnadatta” (1998)
  • “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” (2007)

Individual story reviews follow…

“Nunivak Snowflakes” involves an Alaskan community that is of interest to the world superpowers. One of the residents, Naluvara — who receives messages inside fish that fall from the sky — has a mechanical arm that, because of its healing powers, puts him on the path of Shaman. This 1990 story is one of Reynolds’ first and it shows. Lack of focus muddles the otherwise interesting elements, making the story more work than the payoff.

In “Monkey Suit,” a man inherits the EVA suit of his friend, who mysteriously died outside the lighthugger ship on which they serve. Here, then, is all the wonder and tension that I have come to expect from an Alastair Reynolds story. It helps that this is set in his well-imaging Revelation Space sequence, the references to which (particularly the Melding Plague) makes me want to revisit it. Well done.

In “Fixation” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3 edited by George Mann), Alastair Reynolds uses the many worlds theory to posit an experiment in which a museum piece borrows entropy from other universes, thus restoring the condition of old artifacts. Seen through the eyes of Rana, this is devastating, as she comes from the lending universe. Big Ideas and a steady buildup of suspense make this story memorable.

“Feeling Rejected” is a short, scathing review of a scientific paper regarding an advanced alien civilization detected via gravitational signals. While this fictional review offers an interesting peek into a possible future, it’s more literary experiment than fiction…perhaps Reynolds’ commentary on a review he received?

“Fury” (originally reviewed in Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan) is a great example of expert storytelling. It’s a science fiction murder mystery that starts off with a bang (the assassination of the Galactic Emperor) and keeps moving through several plot twists as the Emperor’s Security Advisor, Mercurio, attempts to solve the crime. Reynolds keeps things interesting by offering up plot twists every few pages, but the real beauty is how the story unfolds for the reader. Once the entire story is laid out, it is every bit as satisfying as the journey to find it. Well done.

Reynolds combines alien biology and interactive gaming in “Stroboscopic,” in which the protagonist, an elite gamer who may be past his prime, plays a most deadly game. Reynolds starts by creating some interesting drive-by world building concerning corporate corruption and continues to ratchet up the tension through a competition and then life-threatening danger to present a story that’s page-turning and all too brief because of it.

“The Receivers” (Originally reviewed in Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake) is an alternate history story proposing that English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth never met their musical calling, instead becoming soldiers in a war on an alternate Earth. Knowing they are real-life composers is crucial to enjoying this story, but even if you don’t, the characterizations are such that the poignant ending still works.

“Byrd Land Six” is the story of a mysterious experiment occurring at an arctic facility carried out by some visiting employees of The Company that set it up. The Company, largely involved with mining on the moon and concerned with getting humanity into space, sends operatives down to BL6 to execute the covert operation – a decision that doesn’t sit well with Everard, the station’s leader. From the opening paragraphs, it’s clear that Reynolds is in fine form even in 1995, an early stage of his career. Despite an inexplicable plot point near the end, this excellent story successfully mixes sense of wonder, gripping plot development and real-world corporate politics and agendas into a tight, engrossing story.

Young Peter Vandry necessarily becomes “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” when he finds himself on the run and in need of passage on the next outgoing spaceship. To earn his keep, he assists the ship’s doctor with maintaining a handful of lobotomized human/cyborgs (lobots) and discovers some disturbing secrets. Reynolds is in fine form with this young adult story (which originally appeared in the YA Anthology The Starry Rift), mixing cyborgs, pirates, and alien creatures. This is an enthralling story of action and wonder.

Reynolds’ story “On the Oodnadatta” is structured in two threads: one present day thread about a woman about to enter cryogenic suspension; the other, unconnected at first, taking place a few decades later and showing an Australian work detail tasked with fixing a broken down road train carrying cattle. How the author gets from these relatively non-sf-nal narratives to a story involving world-changing disaster, post-humanism and killer cyborg kangaroos is a marvel to behold and makes for an outstanding read.

“Fresco” is a short-short story about a lone robot, a caretaker, who witnesses the life cycles of entire civilizations from an orbital telescope. Not a bad premise, but it’s too short to be as poignant as the idea might warrant.

“Viper” is about a new technology that assess whether incarcerated prisoners who served their time — in this case, on a fast-moving prison train — have been successfully rehabilitated. The test is conducted by a man whose wife was a victim of someone who the previous system allowed to go free. This is fertile ground for the author to spin some drama from the resulting ethical issues, thus producing a fairly riveting story. The ending, though, is perhaps a little over-engineered to waylay its predictability. Even so, the “what-if?” scenario is well-conceived.

“Soirée” is about a group of sixty space travelers waking from suspended animation to find that their planetary destination is already settled by humans who discovered even faster space travel and beat them there. They group was attempting to escape Earth’s impending Singularity, but awaken to find that their fears were unfounded as the Singularity never occurred. The story’s premise is a good one, if a bit underdeveloped. It felt as if this was to be the basis for a longer story.

Alastair Reynolds always seems to find the right kind of story to satisfy my SFnal tastes. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” (Originally reviewed in Interzone #209), which seems at first to be set in some low-tech past century, we follow innocent, young Kathrin on a moneymaking trip to help support her struggling family. She intends to sell a couple of hogs’ heads to an old woman suspected of being a witch. But the story behind Widow Grayling’s past is as misunderstood as the history of Earth itself. It’s really set about 300 years into the future after a global “Great Winter”, and the facts of years-gone-by have devolved to myths and legends: the Sherriff who used to fly; the road of iron that reached all the way to London; the scary-sounding jangling men… Kathrin learns the truth about Earth’s past and simultaneously takes on a heavy burden. This highly satisfying story strongly hints about the more immediate future of Kathrin (giving a letch his due) and the maturity with which she takes on the responsibility. Great stuff. The potential for future stories set in this world leaves me wanting more.

“Tiger, Burning” is a mystery involving the leak of information from a faraway parallel universe in which advanced aliens, long since gone, have left behind mysterious machinery. Adam Fernando, officer from the Office of Scrutiny, is sent to investigate, a process that involves his memories being decanted into a human-sized cat in that particular brane (the way one travels between them). He questions Dr. Meranda Austvro, the sole researcher of the alien artifacts. As mysteries go, Reynolds has concocted a decent one — especially since it involves some cool world building around the structure of the branes, traveling between them, and the alien technology. This story first appeared in the 2006 anthology Forbidden Planets, which might provide insight to the story’s genesis. That anthology shares a name with the 1957 film Forbidden Planet, which is based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The story references alternate versions of Shakespeare (Wilhelm Shaxpia) and works adapted from that play (The Shipwreck) throughout known time. (Of course there are other similarities, like the character name of Meranda. And the title itself may be a reference to the William Blake poem “The Tyger”) Those references are given in the context of data patterns found across the branes that ultimately provide the clue Fernando needs to solve the case. A nice touch, but not essential to the story.

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.

3 Comments on REVIEW: Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

  1. Thanks!


    I had asked people in the past, and no-one could really remember what Viper and On the Oodnadatta were about.  Those two, Byrd Land Six and Nunivak Snowflakes are the only non-recent work I haven’t seen.  Other than the crazy destroyed story in Finland stunt, of course.

  2. *sigh* Broke as I am…Oh, well. On the wish list she’s goes.



    Unfortunately, I don’t see it at any US bookstores around me.

    Btw, I can’t write in this box with an iphone.


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