Galactic North

July 13, 2015
Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds' Galactic North is a collection of short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe. The stories are ordered by in-universe chronology, with the first story (Great Wall of Mars) set around the year 2200, and the titular Galactic North extending to about 40.000 years in the future. Written between 1990 and 2006, most of the stories have made earlier appearances in sf magazines.

This was in fact the first Reynolds material I ever read. I picked it up in Nexus, a fine purveyor of comics, sf books, RPG material and nerd paraphernalia in Reykjavik, during a 2009 vacation in Iceland. I found the back cover blurb irresistible:

Centuries from now, solidarity stretches thin as humanity spreads past the solar system and to the nearest stars. Technology has produced powerful new tools – but lethal risk will always accompany great advancement.

And without foresight, opposing groups may fracture multiple worlds. Between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, the basic right to expand human intelligence beyond its natural limits has become a war-worthy cause. Only vast lighthugger starships – manned by the panicky and paranoid Ultras – bind these squabbling colonies together.

The rich get richer. And everyone tries not to think about the worrying number of extinct alien civilizations turning up on the outer reaches of settled space…because who's to say that humanity won't be next?

It didn't disappoint. I inhaled the book from the passenger seat during an extended drive across Iceland, and finished it in a single marathon sitting. I then proceeded to buy the original Revelation Space trilogy (as well as Pushing Ice) once I got back to Denmark. And now I've re-read it.

The Revelation Space setting is a strange mix between hard(ish) science fiction and space opera. Humanity has turned into a severely fractured spacefaring species. The two primary factions are the Demarchists and the Conjoiners. The Demarchists practice a form of radical direct democracy, in which voting on political issues is pervasive, perpetual, carried out by cybernetic implant linked to gigantic polling computers, and mostly a subconscious process for its citizens. The Conjoiners are a true hive mind, using cybernetic implants to link their minds into a collective consciousness. The Ultras mentioned in the blurb are independent near-lightspeed starship crews, most of whom have so extensive cybernetic modifications that they are barely recognizable as human, and do not form a cohesive political faction on their own (in fact, one story is specifically about a violent battle between Ultra crews). There are no active alien cultures at near-human levels of development, and there is no faster-than-light travel.

Here are some brief unspoilered introductions to the stories.

  1. Great Wall of Mars (2205): The first story introduces Nevil Clavain, a recurring character who also has an appearance in the main Revelation Space cycle. It concerns the breakdown of negotiations between the original Conjoiner nest on Mars and the Coalition of Neural Purity, a conservative faction primarily concerned with fighting the Conjoiners (and maintaining an uneasy peace with the early Demarchists, who live in the Outer Solar System).
  2. Glacial (2217): Another Clavain story, set after the Conjoiners have fled the Solar System and come upon a collapsed American colony on an icy planet around the star Ross 248. The story is essentially a science fiction murder mystery: All the colonists are centuries dead, but it appears foul play may have been involved.
  3. A Spy in Europa (2330): Back in our solar system, this is an espionage and intrigue thriller involving an operative from Gilgamesh Isis, an anti-Demarchist faction that doesn't survive into the Revelation Space era. Double-crossing, triple-crossing and backstabbery ensues! Also, mutant fish-men.
  4. Weather (2358): Set on an Ultra ship under attack by an Ultra pirate crew, sheer dumb luck makes the difference in the battle and our Ultra protagonists pick through the carcass of their adversary. They find an abducted Conjoiner girl enslaved by the pirates, and take her aboard despite the anti-Conjoiner sentiment of their ancient Captain (who was around for the events of the first story).
  5. Dilation Sleep (2513-2540): One question every science fiction writer who doesn't want to just write stories about software is why anybody would go through the effort of launching canned apes into space instead of just using AI-driven starships. In this story, we follow a non-Ultra starship, on which the crew works as "heuristic resources", assistants to the ship computer, on a ship carrying Demarchy citizens fleeing the Melding Plague (a cybernetic pestilence that causes the near-ubiquitous cyberimplants to turn into a malignant, cancerous miniature grey goo). The story follows a medical crisis on board – three guesses which illness somebody caught.
  6. Grafenwalder's Bestiary (2540): Set after the end of the Plague, but with its effects still fresh in memory, this story follows an ultra-wealthy security systems specialist, collecting human and nonhuman "monsters" in his personal zoo to exhibit to his friends in the local bourgeoisie. The story follows his attempts to get hold of one of the mutant fish-men from the third story — and sheds some light on the bizarre upper echelons of post-plague Demarchy society.
  7. Nightingale (2600): My least favourite story from the collection, this one involves a small commando raid trying to extract a wanted war criminal apparently hiding on a sentient hospital ship.
  8. Galactic North (2303-40000): The final and titular story concerns another captain (transporting frozen passengers) attacked and tortured by Ultra pirates. This kicks off a millennia-long revenge plot (near-lightspeed time dilation makes for some crazy timelines), taking place while the galaxy is slowly being destroyed by rogue terraforming devices.

All in all, highly recommended! It can be read even if you know nothing about Revelation Space, although re-reading it (after having read the rest of the series), I can see that there were some (non-essential) references I missed on my first reading. I'll probably re-read the whole series soon; it's some of my favourite science fiction.

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