The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Alastair Reynolds has been a contemporary science fiction author on my list of writers to check out for a while. It was near the end of Christmas break that I visited my local public library and grabbed a small pile of novels that included Swanwick, Moorcock, and Benford, and a very thin volume by Reynolds. The Six Directions of Space, like The Best of Michael Swanwick, was published by Subterranean Press (one of a signed run of 1000), but unlike the Swanwick, it was a disappointment. From everything I hear, Reynolds has done impressive contemporary science fiction, but The Six Directions of Space, though a quick and easy read (actually a novella in hardcover), is not among this.
I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me about the work as I was reading. It was a compelling idea: a reality in which the Mongols had conquered the known world, become a space-faring civilization, and then—after stumbling across alien technology—a galaxy-spanning one. An agent of the Khan is sent to the periphery of this empire to investigate rumors of phantom ships appearing in the sub-space corridors (the Infrastructure) that allow FTL travel. Doing so, the protagonist stumbles across evidence that these conduits linking space actually link together much more.
I don’t like writing bad reviews. But I do like analyzing stories to help improve my own. So I’m going to do that for this one, with the understanding that Reynolds is a very successful writer and that this particular review says nothing about his overall work, from which I just appear to have selected a poor sample.
Finishing this work though (within a day, as it is really quite short) I realized it was a good example of how great ideas can be executed in a way that leaves a story feeling limp and passive, which is how this one felt. I was motivated to keep turning pages to see when the twist was going to come, not because I was gripped or because I had fallen in love with the characters or because the vistas were sharp and compelling. I just read to keep reading. If it was a full-length novel I would have put it down after a couple chapters.
Why? I came up with three reasons, and each of them is something that I continually struggle with in my own writing. Each of them is something that I think often keeps Stephen Case-level writing from becoming, say, Michael Swanwick-level writing.
Here they are:
1. Narrative passivity: Yellow Dog, the main character, doesn’t really do anything in this story. She’s sent on a mission and takes some small initiative near the beginning to get some information, but she’s captured early on. From that point the plot is just stuff happening to her. She doesn’t seem an agent; she doesn’t have to make any hard decisions; she doesn’t develop as a character. She’s carried along by the stream of events, so it’s hard to care about her or what happens to her. Her horse dies. She meets a guy. She solves a puzzle. But none of this seems to matter to the ultimate outcome of the story.
2. Telling but not showing: From the beginning of the story I felt like I was reading not a story but a report. Yellow Dog was telling what happened, maybe typing it up to send to her superiors back on Earth. At first I thought this was narrative method, but even when it was clear this would never become a report it didn’t stop. And because of the tone, there was no tension. To take just one example, when their ship was caught in Infrastructure turbulence and the stabilizing whiskers were ripped off and we weren’t sure if our heroes were going to make it, we didn’t get a description. We didn’t get anything about what this looked like or sounded like or how it make the characters feel. We just got a report, like maybe we were interested in designing a ship with replacement stabilizing whiskers. The writing style made it feel like everything was already predetermined, and it was kept up throughout.
3. And finally, triteness, and here’s a *major spoiler*
It turns out that the Infrastructure is bleeding into other realities, and our heroes get lost among them. But the realities disappointingly turn out to be little more than caricatures: a Christian (or at least Western) civilization, a galactic Caliphate, one where monkeys evolved, and one with intelligent lizards. This might have worked in the 1960s, maybe, but now we need more subtly, more piercing realities than these, especially when the final take-away is that even people from such radically different backgrounds can learn to work together.
I have heard lots of good things about Reynolds, so please feel free to offer some alternative suggested reading in the comments, but if you’re looking to get into his work don’t start here.