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Thousandth Night / Minla's Flowers
Alastair Reynolds
Subterranean Press, 186 pages

Thousandth Night
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: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: Galactic North
SF Site Review: The Prefect
SF Site Review: Zima Blue and Other Stories
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 Derek Johnson

It seems too good to be true, really. Having Subterranean Press publish novellas in the tradition of an Ace Double appears to provide the reader with the best of both worlds. It offers nostalgia, of course, but nostalgia tempered with a modern sensibility, since its double novels are in the form of a modern small press hardcover (hence both more durable). Moreover, featuring the novellas "Thousandth Night" and "Minla's Flowers" by Alastair Reynolds, one of the best contemporary space opera writers working today, only adds to the promise of nostalgia and contemporary pleasures. Unfortunately, the pleasures in these novellas, while competent and enjoyable, do not quite measure up to Reynolds's best work.

They have good pedigree. Both novellas are reprints: "Thousandth Night" first appeared in Gardner Dozois's anthology One Million A.D., while "Minla's Flowers" saw its initial publication in The New Space Opera, edited by Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Both stories, further, showcase some of Reynolds's best features: the ease with which he creates interesting characters in strange settings; his ability to blend space opera with other generic forms (mystery in "Thousandth Night," bildungsroman in "Minla's Flowers"); his knowledge of current physics and technologies that, while consistent with what might be possible, never read as flat or arid, as happens far too often with hard sf. And yet the same problem hampers both stories: despite tackling diverse subjects and generic approaches, both stories feel distant and aloof, never fully engaging the reader.

"Thousandth Night" takes place in the same universe as House of Suns. Humanity has spread across the galaxy, though most large civilizations fall after a few thousand years. (Faster-than-light travel does not exist in this setting, a liability for the sustainability of interstellar empires.) Members of the Genitan Line (nine hundred and ninety-three male and female clones of one Abigail Gentian) traverse the galaxy collecting knowledge and experience, meeting for one thousand days every 200,000 years in a reunion ceremony. During this ceremony Campion, an ecological artist (shades of John Varley's "The Phantom of Kansas") finds himself embroiled in a mystery: Burdock, a member of his clone line, has memories that contradict Campion's, indicating that he, Burdock, has created an alibi, and Campion embarks with Purslane, another member of the Gentian Line, on an investigation to discover what might have happened, and what it might mean for the Line's mysterious Great Work. Reynolds structures the novella like a British cozy mystery, specifically Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, by having his rich dilettantes confined to the planet and its orbit. The mystery itself reaches back through galactic history, which for spoiler reasons will not be divulged, and its ultimate reveal ends with a space battle outside the planet's orbit. The mystery itself is intriguing (and who doesn't love a good space battle?), but Reynolds makes Campion too detached to allow the reader to stake much interest.

Minla's Flowers No mystery needs to be solved in "Minla's Flowers," except for those of the human heart. While searching for a weapon that will defeat the Huskers in their war with humanity (known as the Cohort), the space pilot Merlin must land his damaged ship Tyrant on Lecythus, a planet beset by civil war. As he begins to make repairs and befriend on one side, he learns that a portion of the Waynet (a portion of space that allows spacecraft to travel rapidly between the stars) has become unstable and will destroy Lecythus's sun (and of course their planet) within a hundred years. Merlin urges the factions to work together to leave the planet, providing them information on how they ultimately can build starships. He places himself in a cryogenic chamber and wakens every twenty years to check on their progress. Minla, a little girl he meets shortly after landing is the lynchpin of the story, for Merlin interacts with her each time he awakens, watching as she, and her civilization, become more grim and cynical. This novella is a bildungsroman, following Minla and Merlin as she transforms into a monster and he becomes more disillusioned. The ideas behind it, specifically the mistakes of history, are intriguing, yet again, its principal characters feel too broad to fully engage the reader, leaving Reynolds to rely more on sentiment than genuine insight.

In the end, "Thousandth Night" and "Minla's Flowers," despite their good ideas and the presentation by Subterranean Press, don't quite succeed the way that Subterranean Press's previous double novella by Lucius Shepard ("Ariel" and "Vacancy") did. Both novellas have their points, but both needed stronger characters to be truly engaging. It may have been too good to be true -- old-fashioned Ace Double space adventure for modern sensibility -- but one should give Reynolds and Subterranean Press props for effort.

Copyright © 2009 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson lives, works and writes in Central Texas. He believes that, one day, he'll make a dent in his ever-growing "to-read" pile. That hasn't happened thus far.

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