Author: Alastair Reynolds
Title: Galactic North
Series: Revelation Space #6
A collection of short stories and novellas from the Revelation Space universe, Galactic North showcases both the enviable scope of imagination and the undeniable literary skill of the erstwhile astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds. The collection was recommended to me by two bloggers whose advice I value highly: Maddalena at Space and Sorcery, and Bookstooge, and I must thank them once again for their recommendation – I wasn’t disappointed.
Reynolds’s dry writing style, his rather pessimistic general worldview and, particularly, outlook for humanity, the focus on grey moral areas and difficult choices, as well as his attention to technical and logical detail are all strongly reminiscent of the characteristics of one of my favorite SF authors of all time, Stanisław Lem. In a way, I see Reynolds as his successor, writing cautionary tales set in the far future, which could easily have been a long-forgotten, fantastical past.
Let’s be straight: science in Reynolds’s stories plays negligible role. It is there more as an ornament, or maybe an extension of logical processes of human thought and behavior, than as a thing in itself. If someone’s looking for a hard SF, this is most decidedly not it. But if you’re interested in how environment influences people’s behavior, and how people can control and manipulate their environment, Reynolds’s analysis offers some provoking glimpses into the complexity of human nature. Probably the most interesting for me was Reynolds’s underlying assumption that human nature is in effect immutable: the environment becomes an extension of it through the use of various media and technological tools, but it doesn’t truly affect the expression of this nature. And I can’t help but keep wondering whether this is a conscious philosophical choice, or maybe something less tangible: a reflection of the author’s personal preferences and thoughts. It is most clearly noticeable in Reynolds’s treatment of Conjoiners: a socio-political faction of humans who underwent a technologically assisted joining of minds into a form of hive consciousness. Maybe it’s the problem of reading the collection first, instead of Revelation Space full-length novels; maybe there the singularity of hive mind is better explained. But here, the Conjoiners don’t differ much from the other factions – what sets them apart is reminiscent mostly of the imagery surrounding Star Trek Vulcans: unemotional, highly logical beings which value rational thought and expedience above all else. This image is reinforced in the first story, “Great Wall of Mars”, where the consequences of a premature conjoining in children are explained in terms of autism.
I’ve read Reynolds’s explanation that he wanted to take the demonizing odium off the concept of a hive mind. Again, influences of old SF tropes are visible here, but I believe they stem from something deeper: a very powerful human fear of deindividualization coupled with an equally powerful human need of belonging to something greater. And to that extent, Reynolds reimagines the concept of a hive mind into a repository of identities, where nothing ever truly disappears but lives on in a form of immortality that is memory. The concept itself is nothing new; as early as I BC Horace wrote his poetical testament Non omnis moriar, and as late as 2017 Disney’s showcased in Coco another version of the same trope: memory as the vehicle for immortality. And yes, I did put Horace and Coco in one sentence :D. I could also add that Freeman Dyson, the late polymath genius who passed away on the 28th Feb 2020, presented this idea back in 1979 in a paper “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe”. His “Cosmic Unity of souls” might have well been an inspiration for Reynolds’s Conjoiners.
Tales in Galactic North vary in quality, scope of imagination and storytelling ambition, and – probably most importantly – time of writing. The oldest story, written back in 1990, is “Dilation Sleep”, a twisted tale of the limits of human perception and AI; the most recent – “Weather”, “Nightingale”, and “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”, were written in 2006. The writing becomes undeniably more polished with time, the imagery more extravagant – especially in “Nightingale” and “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”, which boldly stride into a body horror territory – but in general, I felt their overall impact lessening, as if they were designed more for their entertainment value than the potential for provoking thought. I must admit that the stories which stayed with me the longest, and which reminded me of Lem’s works the most, were the older ones: “Galactic North”, a chilling retelling of the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice, embellished with the bittersweet reimagining of star-crossed lovers and set over the course of nearly 40 000 years; “A Spy in Europa” – essentially an imaginative biotechnological twist on a traditional spy thriller trope, and “Glacial” – a story revolving around difficult moral choices and their consequences.
Reynolds creates a compelling far-future world where humanity remains as divided and imperfect as ever. Technological progress doesn’t bring happiness; even peace is as elusive as ever, humans remaining irrevocably tied to their evolutionary beginnings as social apes despite their increased control over environment. It is an undeniably pessimistic view; in the universe of Revelation Space technological utopias – or societies of abundance – of Banks or Asher remain firmly in the domain of fiction. And yet, the majority of Reynolds’s stories in Galactic North doesn’t batter the reader with unremitting gloom, instead offering a glimmer of hope in the form of very human, and humane, protagonists: Nevil Clavain, one of the characters from the Revelation Space cycle, Weather and Inigo, Irravel and Markarian.
The stories are overwhelmingly plot-driven; don’t expect fully realized, believable protagonists, witty dialogues or character development. Most of the characters crowding Galactic North’s pages are sketches; existing for a moment in time until their purpose in the story is fulfilled. And yet many of them transcend their initial two-dimensionality and begin to feel real in their complexity and moral ambiguity, their propensity for emotional responses over logic, and their very human flaws. At no time, however, are we allowed to forget that their purpose is secondary. Because first and foremost, Galactic North goal is to offer an opportunity – and food – for thought. The universe created by Reynolds is not a very pleasant place; and yet, it does grant both possibility of redemption and a chance for rapture-like enlightenment – not necessary in the fold of a hive mind, but mostly in very intimate moments of seeing the Other as a person, in the precious ability to communicate and understand another being as our equal.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space universe. It’s a solid, thought-provoking and ultimately rewarding, even if periodically rather dry and sometimes a bit uneven, read. I will definitely return to this universe – I intend to read Revelation Space next and see where that book takes me.