Visions of Paradise

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Galactic North

After I finished reading Stephen Baxter’s superb collection Resplendent, I moved onto another “New Space Opera” collection, Alastair Reynolds’ Galactic North. Keep in mind that I began this series with high aspirations for several reasons: I really loved Reynolds’ trilogy Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, to which this collection is closely related, and I have read several Reynolds’ short stories previously and I enjoyed all of them a lot.

The first story in Galactic North was “Great Wall of Mars,” which was the first Reynolds story I ever read a half-dozen years ago in a Gardner Dozois-edited Year’s Best Science Fiction. The story has even more resonance now since it is the first story about Nevil Clavain, the main character in the Revelation Space trilogy. As the story opens, Clavain is on the side of the Coalition in their Cold War with the Conjoiners, those enhanced humans whose minds are interconnected almost like a hive mind. Clavain is on a diplomatic mission with a representative of the Demarchists, a third group of humans who remained neutral during the recent Coalition-Conjoiner war who hope to bring peace to the solar system.

Besides introducing several of the important characters in the series–such as Clavain, Galiana who is one of the Conjoiner leaders, and Felka, a brain-damaged Conjoiner child–this story also shows how Clavain, one of the leading members of the Coalition, is practically forced into the Conjoiner camp by the double-dealing of his brother Warren who seeks a resumption of the war more than the chance of peace.

“Great Wall of Mars” exhibits Reynolds’ strength at telling a full story rich in technological development while keeping the pace moving briskly. This early story boded well both for Reynolds’ career as a writer and for the rest of the collection.

“Weather” is one of the new stories written for this volume, and it shows Reynolds’ growth as a writer. It is basically a love story. A ship transporting frozen humans to a new home is threatened by a pirate ship, and manages to not only fight them off but destroy the pirate ship itself. The only survivor is a Conjoiner who was a captive of the pirates. She is taken aboard the trading ship where one of the crew members–who are Ultras, humans who live exclusively on ships in space and have adapted to that lifestyle by becoming almost a distinct group of humans besides Conjoiners, Demarchists, and the Coalition–falls in love with the girl. The love affair was not totally convincing; Inigo, the Ultra, fell in love with Weather, the Conjoiner, much too quickly and easily, and he let his feelings cause a rift between him and his captain much too quickly as well. This process needed to be drawn out a bit more, and examined more in depth, to be totally successful.

However, accepting the depth of the romance, the story still had an exciting plot as the trading ship’s engines were damaged in the battle with the pirate ship, and they were at risk from another approaching vessel unless Weather can somehow help them repair the engines, since all engines were built by Conjoiners who protect the secrets of their inner functions closely. There is also a scene of true humanity, one of Reynolds’ best human interest scenes ever, when the ship’s captain confronts his own prejudice against Conjoiners in a meeting with Weather. This scene was the highlight of the story, followed closely by the secret of the ship’s engine, and made for a successful story overall.

Alastair Reynolds enjoys mixing genres, and the two genres he seems to enjoy the most are noir mysteries and horror fiction. Both novellas new to this collection “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” and “Nightingale” show strong elements of horror, but fortunately both stories are also stronger and deeper than the typical “fear for the sake of fear” of many horror stories.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” is the story of a collector of rare beings gathered from the entire settled region of Reynolds’ future history. The story has a Vancean quality as it tours what is in effect a freak show of Reynolds’ future. Grafenwalder is part of a “circle” of collectors whose main raison d’etre seems to be one-upping each other with the exotica gathered into their collections. Grafenwalder’s main objet d’art is a denizen, a creature so renowned none of the collectors are sure whether it is real or a creature from legend.

This story is primarily mystery for its first two-thirds, as we wonder why Grefenwaler desires a denizen so, and how his arch-enemy will one-up him when he obtains one. The ending is a clever construction on Reynolds’ part, combining equal parts horror and artistic justice, a fitting conclusion for a Vancean story.

“Nightingale” tells of a famous hospital ship which was a port of neutrality during a long interstellar war, a place where combatants from both sides went for healing before being returned to the war. Now, years later, a group of former combatants are returning to the ship seeking the body of perhaps the most infamous war criminal who is apparently hiding on the now nonfunctional ship. The middle portion of “Nightingale” is primarily horror, as the group travels through what borders on being a haunted ship, but it returns to mystery and an ending both gruesome and, like “Bestiary,” fitting, with a strong anti-war message. Another good story.

The final story in the book is “Galactic North,” which like the last story in Stephen Baxter’s wonderful collection Resplendent, roams from the relatively-near future into the depths of eternity in its tale of two former lovers who became foes after being captured by space pirates when one of them betrays the other seemingly to save his own life. For various reasons both their intelligences are grafted into different spaceships, which leads to a chase through the millennia and ultimately a place in future legend for the starcrossed lovers. This is another romance by Reynolds and, while not the finest story in the book, it does provide a fitting coda for all the precedes it.

While Galactic North is not as stunning as Reynolds’ three novels in the same future, several of the stories fill in some gaps in the future history, while others are fine stories regardless of what universe in which they are set. This collection reinforced my opinion of Alastair Reynolds as one of the finest sf writers of the current decade.


  • This review of Galactic North really gets it - and I've got to say I agree it further shows off Reynolds as one of the great science fiction authors of our time.

    I've loved your blog for a while - lots of terrific stuff on here. Keep it up!!!

    I blog about science fiction at

    - Bryan

    By Blogger Bryan @MPF, At 1:09 AM  

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