Beyond the Aquila Rift

Posted: November 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

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It was a real honour to be declared runner up in the National Space Centre’s short story competition last year, but it was just as awe inspiring to meet Alistair Reynolds, and to learn he’d read and enjoyed my story! Part of my prize was a book signed by the man himself, a huge collection of short stories the size of which, to be honest, put me off at first, but I finally set a few months aside to work my way through it and what a treat.

As with any anthology some stories are better than others, some stories hit an emotional note with me and some didn’t, but all demonstrate a master of his craft. Anyway here’s a brief review of each of the stories within…

 

The book opens with Great Wall of Mars, a tale of enhanced humans and Martian terraforming that it took me a little while to get into, but once I had intrigued me greatly.

It’s followed up by Weather, a story set later in the same universe. It’s an interesting tale of space farers menaced by pirates, and the extreme measures they need to go to in order to escape, relying on an augmented human who they’re not sure they can trust.

The titular Beyond the Aquila Rift is next up, an unsettling tale of lost travellers that merges the Twilight Zone with the Matrix.

Minla’s Flowers is a neat tale of political expediency and features a character trying to save a less advanced civilisation, popping himself into cryogenic storage for a few decades at a time in order to monitor their growth. It’s a story that starts out quite sweet and winds up somewhere rather dark.

Zima Blue is probably the first story not to grip me, there’s an intriguing idea at its heart about an artist who’s now more machine than man, and his obsession with a particular shade of blue, but I’m glad it was one of the shorter stories in the collection.

Fury is about an incredibly old robot who serves as the personal protector of an equally ancient galactic emperor. When an attempt is made on the emperor’s life the robot goes in search of those behind it, but discovers secrets about himself and his emperor in the process that will change their relationship forever. It’s a story that didn’t remotely go where I expected it to, and the end is nicely done.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice is a gloriously gory story about cybernetically enhanced space pirates. It’s bloodthirsty and just plain bloody, but if you have a strong stomach it’s fun too.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter is more of a fantasy tale, albeit one with clear science fiction overtones. Set in a future Northumbria trapped in a mini ice age it features a young woman struggling to avoid the machinations of a vile suitor, and an old woman who may or may not be a witch. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and if I had a problem with it it’s that it feels like the prologue for a more epic story, rather than a self-contained story.

Diamond Dogs is a very long story, and another quite gory one, merging Steven King with films like The Cube as a group of explorers try and get to the top of an alien spaceship through room after room, each of which contains tests of increasing difficulty and penalties of increasing severity. It goes on a bit too long, and I found the eventual end a little unsatisfying, but it was delightfully devious for most of its length.

Thousandth Night was a bit of a joy, featuring as it did the characters of Campion and Purslane from House of Suns. I was already au fait with the characters and their world, and an enjoyable murder mystery ensued.

Troika is an evocative tale of a soviet cosmonaut who escapes from a hospital to try and reach an old scientist in order to tell her she was right in her theory about a mysterious alien artefact. It turns out he is the only survivor of a Russian mission to explore the artefact, but the story has an unexpected twist in the tale. I liked this one a lot, especially in its depiction of a snowbound Second Soviet. Very Quatermass.

Sleepover is the one story I didn’t read, because I read it a few months ago in The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF!

Vainglory is another story about art, and oddly another one I couldn’t quite engage with, although it’s central theme of people chiselling asteroids and creating rings around planets wasn’t uninteresting.

Trauma Pod, like Diamond Dogs, is another one that relies heavily on body horror, as a wounded solider is kept alive inside a robot which goes to increasing lengths to keep him safe. It’s very unsettling.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa is another story featuring characters risking death to explore an alien artefact, in this case something buried in a cave system on an uninhabited planet. There’s a rough and ready piratical edge to the story I quite liked.

The Water Thief is okay, but only really interesting in that it doesn’t go where you expect it to as we follow the story of a refugee barely earning a living as a teleoperator remotely controlling robots, who eventually ends up involved in a political struggle on the Moon!

The Old Man and the Martian Sea has some wonderfully evocative imagery, and winds up being quite sad as a young girl runs away from home and meets up with a grizzled old man who takes her to one of Mars’ original settlements, now a city sunk beneath a lake.

The final story, In Babelsburg, has an interesting premise, that of a sentient space probe, but I feel it didn’t really go anywhere so it wasn’t one of my favourites.

All in all though a wonderful, if somewhat impenetrable at times, anthology that I’d recommend, maybe I should have interspersed it with other books in between every few stories though because it was like reading three novels bound together in terms of sheer size.

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