Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds (2006) 392 p.

Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space suffered from many of the problems that plague the sci-fi genre (poor characterisation, bad pacing, plot-driven dialogue) but nonetheless displayed a bold imagination and fairly unique vision. Reynolds’ space opera is not an exciting, swashbuckling galaxy stuffed to the brim with interesting alien species and diverse, exotic worlds. Instead, it’s a cold, quiet and eerie place, haunted by the ruins of extinct civilisations, with only a handful of hostile worlds in which humanity has managed to gain a toehold of civilisation. It’s a more realistic portrayal of humanity’s interplanetary future, which treats space as the frightening and dangerous place that it is – the sort of fiction the Alien theme is suitable for.

Galactic North is a collection of eight stories set in the Revelation Space universe, spanning a period from 2200 to 40,000 A.D. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to read it, but I found it at the library and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. From my limited experience Reynolds seems to be better at writing short stories than novels; obviously he has to display more restraint and pare away all the extraneous crap that bloated Revelation Space out, but I also think I’m more tolerant of stilted dialogue in a short, engaging sci-fi story than I am in a long novel.

I’m also a sucker for a sci-fi mystery, and most of the stories in here slot into that category – so even when they’re quite basic and don’t amount to much (“Great Wall of Mars,” “Glacial”) I still found them very compelling. The stand-out piece for me was probably “Nightingale,” a creepy body horror story about a hired group of mercenaries attempting to recover a war criminal from a long-lost hospital ship, recently rediscovered at the edge of a star system. Penetrating the darkness within the abandoned ship, they find that it’s not quite as dormant as they suspected, and after a slow burn of horror the story ends with a gruesome twist.

Spanning far more of Reynolds’ imagined galaxy in both space and time, Galactic North doesn’t have quite the same sense of lonely dread that I enjoyed in Revelation Space. It is, nonetheless, a further exploration of a fictional universe very different to most of the other space operas floating around out there. If creepy, Lovecraftian, horror-infused space exploration is your thing, you should definitely check Reynolds out.

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