Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds (2016) 779 p.

This was a rare one for me – an impulse purchase from a bookstore shelf! Well, not really an impulse purchase, since Reynolds is an author I like a lot and this brick-sized collection of the highlights of his short fiction promised to be a good read. I was also pleased that even though I’ve read quite a bit of his short fiction, I’d only read four of the eighteen stories within: Great Wall of Mars, Weather and The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice, which I think were all published in Galactic North, plus the 100-page novella Diamond Dogs.

Other than those four, standouts included:

Beyond the Aquila Rift, about a cargo crew who make a lightspeed jump and find themselves drastically off course, the main character stuck in a remote space station outpost with his two crewmates trapped in malfunctioning cryo pods, but reunited with an old flame who also happens to be stuck out the back of beyond with him. This is a really, really good sci-fi story that builds up a great sense of tension as the protagonist begins to suspect something is being hidden from him, and the twist at the end is fantastic. It bears mentioning that along with the more mediocre story Zima Blue, this was adapted as one of the flagship episodes of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots. I went ahead and watched this one purely on the strength of this story, and it’s not bad, but I do think it made one critical mistake, which I’ll try to express without spoilering: while the TV show captures the horror and revulsion of the final twist, it doesn’t capture the more complicated idea that behind that base-level revulsion is actually benevolence, rather than malevolence – which, I think, is a much more interesting ending. Anyway, this is a brilliant short story and there’s a reason it lends its name to the title of the book.

Minla’s Flowers is about a wandering starfarer, perhaps not dissimilar to the shatterlings of House of Suns, whose damaged ship alights upon a forgotten planet where two different societies are engaged in a perpetual war with each other. As he goes in and out of cryo-sleep, the starfarer attempts to limit his engagement with their more primitive development while also trying to protect them from an upcoming disaster, and the story is ultimately about his inability to remain truly neutral.

Fury follows the robotic servant and bodyguard of a galactic emperor who is no longer remotely human, travelling across worlds to unravel the conspiracy against a failed assassination attempt on his master, and in doing so uncovering the secrets of his own history and the emperor’s dark past.

Thousandth Night is set in the same universe, and indeed with the same protagonists, as House of Suns; and since House of Suns is one of the best things Reynolds ever wrote and one of the best sci-fi novels of the past twenty years, this story is just as great.

Those are the standouts, but most of the stories in here are pretty good – and in fact I skipped over the ones I’d already read but still found myself skim reading huge chunks of Diamond Dogs because that one’s a classic. Reynolds is a potboiler sci-fi writer of the highest order: his stories are always good, always engaging, always page-turning, while also being generally smart and well-written. He’s probably not about to win the Booker any time soon, but it’s criminal he’s never won a Hugo or Nebula. His works are solidly reliable reading, and I strongly recommend this collection to anybody who enjoys sci-fi.