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Zima Blue and Other Stories
Alastair Reynolds
Night Shade Books, 295 pages

Zima Blue and Other Stories
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Hard science fiction, and space opera, are styles of SF that tend to work better at lengths longer than short stories. The depth of historical background, and the ideas needed to sustain a story that ranges far in space and time often requires a fairly large number of words. In order to make it work at a shorter length, hard SF writers tend to focus in on a single idea. The story becomes an exploration of that idea, sometimes at the expense of character and style. Alastair Reynolds has made his reputation as a writer of big, sprawling novels with complex characters, detailed histories, and a dark, almost gothic vision of life's place in the universe. The stories in Zima Blue at times show the difficulty of cramming the entire cosmos into one short story, but they also showcase aspects of the author's writing that don't often come out in his novels. There's some humor here, and even a little romance.

The romance is most evident in "Signal to Noise," the collection's only previously unpublished story. Contact with an alternate reality brings a man face-to-face with personal loss, his own failings, and the woman his wife might have been. It's a nice blending of regret, tempered with a small measure of redemption. There's a different kind of romance in the title story. An artist, revealed to be a machine intelligence, gives up sentience in order to prove his humanity with one last work of art. The romance here is that of the great sacrifice, giving away all you have in order ton gain the one thing you always wanted. There's an obvious debt to Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man" here, which Reynolds acknowledges in an afterword, But, as he also points out, there's more than one way to tell a good story, and "Zima Blue" does exactly that.

The humor in the stories comes at you in little bits and pieces, the occasional odd situation or turn of phrase. A good example is the re-appearing Bosendorfer grand piano in "Understanding Space and Time," and the reader's knowledge of just who the guy playing that piano is. It's a style of humor that plays on the absurdity of existence, more prone to inducing a knowing smile than out loud laughter, but effective just the same, and a welcome touch in stories that often deal with weightier matters.

For while it may be difficult to write grand space opera in short story form, it's not impossible, and two linked stories, "Hideaway" and "Merlin's Gun" show just how well it can be done. As the character's name suggests, Reynolds uses an overlay of references to Arthurian legends to help flesh out a story set against the rise and fall of human and post-human cultures spanning thousands of generations. Merlin becomes a figure of myth, on a quest to save humanity and end a war. The scope of these stories is truly cosmic; they would fit well on any hard SF bookshelf, nestled in between Greg Bear's "Hardfought" and Stephen Baxter's Vacuum Diagrams.

Zima Blue is a good look at a writer whose work is more often than not read in novel form. Readers familiar with Alastair Reynolds will find much of what they are used to getting, and a little bit more. Readers new to Reynolds will find the collection a good introduction to a writer whose imagination ranges as far as anyone's in the field, and whose grounding in science gives his stories a sense of reality that few can match. They should also find plenty of reasons to go on and read everything else ever written by Alastair Reynolds.

Copyright © 2007 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson was contemplating pursuing the path to enlightenment laid out by John in "Understanding Space and Time," but realized he had to be home for an appointment on Monday. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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