Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds
by Alastair Reynolds
Edited by Jonathan Strahan and William Schafer
Review by Sam Lubell
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067660
Date: 30 June 2016 List Price $45.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The traditional career path of a science fiction writer used to be to start one's career writing short stories and then switch to writing novels, since writers make far more money from one novel than many stories. Today, most novelists never write stories and when they do it is usually tied to a novel's setting. Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds shows how he has been an exception to this trend, having written stories of various lengths throughout his career as a novelist. In fact, his novella Slow Bullets (not included in this collection) is a Hugo finalist this year and won the Locus award.
This very large (779 pages) collection of stories contains 18 of Reynolds' best short fiction. The impressive size of this collection enables several longer stories to be included; one is over 100 pages and five more are over 50 pages. While there are author notes on each story, the publisher collected them all at the end rather than after each story.
Reynolds is not as well known in the United States as he is at home in Great Britain, where his publisher gave him a 10 year, 10 book, £1 million contract in 2009. Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomy and was a research scientist for the European Space Agency. So, it is no surprise that he writes hard science fiction filled with accurate science. What is surprising is how well he writes characters ranging from a man betrayed by his brother, to a robot space probe turned talk show guest. He also excels at creating unusual settings for his plots.
Many of these stories feature action and excitement. "Great Wall of Mars" is about an attempt to make peace with the Conjoiners, humans linked to machines, that becomes a story of duplicity and betrayal set early in his Revelation Space universe. "Fury" is about the robot bodyguard to the emperor of space and the secret crime that began the Radiant Commonwealth. The naïve narrator of "The Star Surgeon's Apprentice" discovers the spaceship crew he joined are really pirates and the ship's doctor is turning captives into lobotomized slaves. In "2217", virtually all the human race is in hibernation; one of the first to go under, to sleep until immortality becomes available, is woken up to a war between superintelligent machines. "Trauma Pod" has a sergeant in a Starship Troopers-style armored combat rescued by a trauma pod, but something goes wrong when the artificially intelligent pod is forced to operate.
Other stories focus on exploration. The title story, "Beyond the Aquila Rift" is a wonderfully human story as a captain stranded far off course repeatedly tries to find a way to tell a crewmate what happened, only to return her, minus her memory of being woken up, to hibernation. In "Diamond Dogs", set in his Revelation Space universe, a team of explorers tries to make it through a structure with a series of rooms each of which presents a mathematical challenge; incorrect answers are punished with mutilation or even death. "Troika" is a fascinating tale of Soviet space exploration and a seemingly alien object in space told in flashbacks by an escapee from an asylum. "The Last Log of the Lachrimosa", another Revelation Space tale, has a three person crew (plus a pet monkey) investigate what happened to the survivor of a spaceship crash (and possible valuable relics only to expose personal conflicts between the three. "In Babelsberg" is a very funny story about a robot space probe that has returned to earth to give speeches and appear on talk shows, including a popular show hosted by a talking Tyrannosaurus Rex, the product of radical genetic manipulation. This features a line most talk show hosts probably wish they could say, "SIT. NOT MAKE DEREK CROSS. CROSS DEREK WANT KILL."
He even has some stories on relationships. "Weather" features a growing romantic attachment between a human shipmaster and a captured Conjoiner, and includes a captain whose is forced to reexamine his hatred of the enemy. "Minla's Flowers" also includes deceit and surprise in this story of a space explorer and his efforts to help the humans of an endangered planet whose internal war prevents them from building the spacecraft they need to escape. "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter" is a far-future story with a fantasy-feel about an elderly widow passing on a powerful device to a teenage girl. "The Water Thief" has a nice contrast between a refugee in a camp who operates a telepresence rig and an injured astronaut on the moon who wants her to disobey her orders to save his life. "The Old Man and the Martian Sea" has an unusual relationship between a young stowaway, upset at her sister's lack of communication with her, and an elderly repairman on Mars.
Others are about art and artists. "Zima Blue" is about an artist, who once created moon-sized artwork in his signature shade of blue, and what it means to keep memories in a machine. "Thousandth Night" features a family reunion, every 200,000 years, in which everyone presents their memories of how they spent the last 200,000 years--the narrator spent the whole time watching sunsets. But when one of the family finds a discrepancy, she teams with the narrator to uncover a threat to the universe. "Vainglory" is a short about a rock sculptor hired to carve the head of Michelangelo's David on a rock orbiting Neptune.
While $45 may seem pricey for a collection of stories, note that Subterranean Press specializes in books for collectors (true collectors will covet the signed, numbered, leather-bound limited edition at $125). For the rest of us, the ebook is excellent value at $9.99 (about 55 cents a story).
Fans of his novels, including his Revelation Space series and his Poseidon's Children series, will find much to enjoy here. Readers of hard science fiction looking for stories with the science and adventure of the golden age, but with a modern style and more literary treatment of character and setting, will greatly enjoy Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds.