Understanding Space and Time

To judge by some of the most visible metrics of quality, Alastair Reynolds had a good 2005. His novel Pushing Ice was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and three of his short stories were picked up for various year’s best volumes: “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer; “Zima Blue” by Dozois again; and a novella, “Understanding Space and Time” by both the Strahan and Horton volumes. As this perhaps indicates, although Reynolds is best-known for his novels—and in particular the four-volume Inhibitors sequence—he has been amassing a significant body of short fiction, culminating in not one but two short fiction collections due later this year: Galactic North, from Gollancz, collecting the existing Inhibitors stories (except for “Diamond Dogs” and “Turquoise Days”, which are available as a separate double-feature) and adding a few new ones, and Zima Blue and Other Stories, from Night Shade, collecting everything else.

Because I haven’t read any of the Inhibitors books, I can’t help feeling relatively under-read in Reynolds; this can in fact be attributed to being thoroughly dissuaded from reading his work by a story published in Interzone sometime in the late nineties, which I suspect was “Galactic North” itself. Since then I’ve gradually read more of his output, although I think he remains a problematic writer. The two novels I’ve read both had fairly serious flaws (Century Rain primarily of pacing, Pushing Ice primarily of characterisation), and while I’ve been impressed by much of his work at shorter lengths, the three stories I mentioned above run the gamut from forgettable to surprisingly moving. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” falls into the first camp, “Zima Blue”, with its build to a striking abdication of humanity, into the second; and Understanding Space and Time (published as a standalone book for last year’s Novacon) seems to me to equally illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Reynolds’ writing.

In many ways, it’s a prototypical cosmological hard sf story. A catastrophic plague on Earth wipes out humanity; the story’s protagonist, the last man, John Renfrew, escapes by virtue of the fact that he’s in a base on Mars; he decides to spend his remaining years studying the mysteries of the universe; and he is contacted by aliens who help him with his quest. So much is familiar. The ultimate revelation is, for obvious reasons, withheld from the reader, but even that is hinted to be somewhat hoary. But in most such stories, that doesn’t really matter: we read them for the experience, to feel the thrill of approaching transcendence.

There’s an intriguing subgenre of sf stories that take music as a metaphor for their subject. Reynolds doesn’t take it as far as, say, James Alan Gardner’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Organism” (1992), or John G. McDaid’s “Keyboard Practice, Consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord and Two Manuals” (2005). His story, although it has the graceful swell and fade of music, is not literally structurally dependent on it. But it sings the music of the universe. It is threaded through with musical analogies: the life-support machines surrounding Renfrew’s last colleague begin to seem to him like music; the aliens, when they turn up, communicate in musical tones; Renfrew’s imaginative exploration of the universe leads to fever dreams which recapitulate “the entire history of the universe, from its first moment of existence to the grand and symphonic flourishing of intelligence”. (There’s also, as Peter Hollo points out, an egregious misuse of the word ‘crescendo’, but you can’t have everything.)

The most obvious representation of music in Reynolds’ story, though, is the delusion that Renfrew indulges in to cope with his isolation: he strikes up a dialogue with a hologram of Elton John (named throughout only as ‘Piano Man’, and who also contributes the story’s epigraph). At first, the appearance of the hologram, and his white Bosendorfer grand piano, seems like a sign of hope—the station isn’t broken beyond repair, Renfrew has more options than he thought he did. It’s not true, but even so “when the piano man was playing,” we are told, “he did not feel truly alone.” Gradually, their interaction deepens, their conversations becoming more involved. Narratively, this is useful for Reynolds—along with the dreams mentioned above, it allows him to make the physics lectures slightly more digestible—but what’s most interesting about the piano man is how he becomes a hook for characterisation.

John Renfrew appears, at first glance, to be a standard hard sf protagonist. Andrew Wheeler neatly nailed the type recently, with reference to Spin: “everyone in it is just a bit more like an engineer than real people actually are: they all explain things just a bit more clearly, and they all do what they say they will do, and they’re nearly always rational.” And sure enough, when the time comes to sit down with the Mars station’s supply of books, Renfrew discards the fiction—”too depressing, reading about other people going about their lives before the accident”—and the philosophy—not a total waste of time, but “detached from anything that Renfrew considered mundane reality”—which leaves (ta-da!) the physics textbooks. When it comes to the day to day stuff, Renfrew acts like an engineer. But Reynolds’ trick is in how Renfrew reacts to his larger situation:

And what if there was in fact no one else out there at all: just empty light years, empty parsecs, empty megaparsecs, all the way out to the furthest, faintest galaxies, teetering on the very edge of the visible universe?

How did that make him feel?

Cold. Alone. Fragile.

Curiously precious.

It’s that trace of ego that’s the key, because it only grows. Confronted with the immensity of the universe, Renfrew strengthens his belief in himself. It is strongly implied that, like the creation of Piano Man, it’s a survival tactic, a mild insanity to prevent a much more total one. As Maureen Kincaid Speller notes, this sort of thinking-through of the psychological consequences of hard-sf scenarios is characteristic of Reynolds’ work. In Understanding Space and Time the sense of pressure builds steadily, although Renfrew’s situation is not visibly changing; it’s his conversations with Piano Man that spur him on.

Piano Man was right. It was a question of how deep he wanted to go.

But surely there was more to it than that. Something else was spurring him on. It felt like a weird sense of obligation, an onus that weighed upon him with pressing, judicial force. He was certain now that he was the last man alive, having long since abandoned hope that anyone was left on Earth. Was it not therefore almost required of him to come to some final understanding of what it meant to be human, achieving some final synthesis of all the disparate threads in the books before him?

On one level, this is simply a description of the force of the story, a recognition that this is how the last man is meant to live his life. Later on, as Renfrew’s quest nears its end, he senses the proximity of an answer as an approaching ending. But more immediately, when the (refreshingly unenigmatic) aliens arrive, bearing the bad news that the virus that wiped out humanity subsequently mutated and wiped out every other biological organism on Earth as well, a stereotypical hard-sf dismissal—”Renfrew dealt with that”—looks somewhat more pathological than usual. Even more tellingly, when the Kind offer to create new humans from Renfrew’s genetic material, he refuses, because “When I was alone, I spent a lot of time thinking things through. I got set on that course, and I’m not sure I’m done yet. There’s still some stuff I need to get straight in my head. Maybe when I’m finished …” It’s not exactly a profound examination of the human condition, but it’s something for us to hold on to.

And so Renfrew upgrades. And so the story almost grounds itself. Reynolds is committed to hard sf—even the Kind are explicitly limited in their capabilities—with the advantage that his work engenders trust that it means what it says: that Renfrew’s characterisation is grounded in a fairly close approximation of what his situation would really be like. But despite this, his portrayal of deep time is curiously flat. It is a portrayal rooted in casual dissonance, the sudden passing of great gobs of time, or the creation of great structures. As his intellectual exploration becomes more demanding, Renfrew leaves behind his human body, becoming first a kilometre-high crystalline mound on the summit of Pavonis Mons, and then growing until eventually he has to detach himself from the planet (for the wonderfully practical reason that the heat dissipation from his thinking is starting to disrupt the planetary climate). But throughout, Reynolds’ description is matter-of-fact:

In space he grew prolifically for fifteen million years. Hot blue stars formed, lived and died while he gnawed away at the edges of certain intractables. Human civilisations buzzed around him like flies. Among them, he knew, were individuals who were engaged in something like the same quest for understanding. He wished them well, but he had a head start none of them had a hope of ever overtaking. Over the years his density had increased, until he was now composed mostly of solid nuclear matter. Then he had evolved to substrates of pure quark matter. By then, his own gravity had become immense, and the Kind reinfoced him with the mighty spars of exotic matter, pilfered from the disused wormhole transit system of some long-vanished culture. A binary pulsar was harnessed to power him; titanic clockwork enslaved for the purposes of pure mentation.

It’s the sort of thing that put me off “Galactic North” way back when. There’s nothing in this that captures how Renfrew’s pursuit of knowledge feels; compared to similar passages in most Stephen Baxter novels (or any of the vastly more personal stories of intelligence amplification that sf is fond of), this is cold, flat stuff. That the story doesn’t collapse entirely is a tribute to the groundwork Reynolds has laid earlier on. We’re content to wait for wave to break, because we suspect it’s fundamentally unstable.

As it turns out, it is and it isn’t. As noted above, the answer Renfrew seeks is both old-fashioned and eventually sidestepped, left to implication. In fact, Renfrew splits his identity: one part of him goes on to the answer, and possible oblivion, while the other waits, receives confirmation that an answer is reached (without being told what the answer is) and chooses to diminish, to return to humanity. As is common in such cosmological stories, a certain amount of this is cast in religious terms, and for the second time Reynolds’ touch almost fails him (there is little excuse for dialogue such as “But that would mean I’m—” “Don’t say it”). But this time, it is not just the glimpses of selfish humanity that keep us reading. The echoes, in Renfrew’s return, of a similar, much more famous story, are distorted, muffled: but in the distance there is the music of the universe, cold and clear.

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4 Responses to “Understanding Space and Time”

  1. Peter Hollo Says:

    *hee*
    Thanks for the mention. A great review, which shows mine up as a not-so-thorough bit of fannishness. But I guess that’s what blogged reviews tend to be (as I’ve discovered through many reviews of recent FourPlay album launches as we’ve toured the country; not that I don’t mind reading over-the-top descriptions of my band…)

    I’m enjoying what Torque Control is doing. Ta.

  2. Jesper Svedberg Says:

    John Renfrew is also the name of one of the main characters in Benford’s Timescape. Does Reynolds do anything with this connection or is it just a coincidence?

  3. Niall Says:

    Peter: nothing wrong with your review; it’s what got me hunting down the story, after all, having completely failed to actually buy a copy at Novacon.

    Jesper: not having read Timescape, I couldn’t tell you, though there are certainly echoes of other stories, so I wouldn’t rule it out. He asks the Kind to stop calling him ‘Renfrew’ and start calling him ‘John’ when he uploads himself, though I was wondering if that was more a Stapledon reference.

  4. Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive » Links for 08-08-2006 Says:

    [...] 3 – Understanding Space and Time Niall Harrison on the new Alastair Reynolds material. (tags: criticism literature writing scifi sf fiction science stories Time Space Understanding Reynolds Alastair) [...]


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