Sunday, 17 February 2008

Novellas, or long short stories?

In what seems like more of a marketing thing than anything else, two "novellas" of Alastair Reynolds are bundled together in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. A rather unimaginative title for the collection given that it merely incorporates the titles of the two Revelation Space-set novellas. Anyway, they seem just like long short stories to me, but ...

The first novella, Diamond Dogs, follows a group of adventurers brought together under mysterious circumstances by an evasive renegade, Childe. He takes them to an unexplored world, devoid of any interesting features bar an artificial tower. The tower's origins are unknown and it communicates to visitors solely by setting them mathematical puzzles. If they get these correct, they are allowed to proceed further into the tower. If they get them wrong, the tower exacts a punishment. At first the puzzles are straightforward and the punishments mild, but as the team advances through and up the tower, things take a turn for the macabre. Gradually, the team is whittled down until abandoning the quest seems the only sane response, but Childe is never giving up.

This is one of those stories where you're expecting one sort of payoff (an explanation about the tower), but get quite another one (why the team has been assembled). It's not an entirely satisfying trade, and though the novella is constructed well and draws you in, ultimately it is something of a frustrating experience.

The second novella, Turquoise Days, is set on one of the worlds that harbour the so-called Pattern Jugglers, massive seaweed-like colonies that interface, and can change, minds that swim among them. These have been described in several of Reynolds' other novels, but the novella takes in a detailed journey with them. The story involves two sisters who study the Jugglers, and the visit to their world by a team of scientists from a distant colony. When this visit is first announced, several years before it actually arrives, the sisters undertake an ill-advised swim with the Jugglers. Both have swum before, but both have become infected by their contact with the Jugglers. This is often a sign that a person is of particular interest to the Jugglers, and on this occasion one of the sisters, Mina, does not return. Naqi, the other sister, does return and, though nursing grief at the loss of her sister, continues with her studies of the Jugglers, becoming involved in a project to attempt to isolate a sub-colony of the Juggler biomass. Eventually the visitors arrive, but they are not what they first appear to be and instigate chaos on the planet. Threatening the very well-being of the Jugglers, Naqi must again commune with them to attempt to contact her lost sister.

The parameters of this novella are somewhat more straightfoward, and there's no sense of disappointment in how it unfurls. It's actually quite good to finally meet the aliens that one has only heard snippets about in Reynolds novels. Well, "meet" in a special sense. The Jugglers remain mysterious, but their mode of interaction with visitors is now much clearer. I suspect that Reynolds is saving further revelations about them for later works.

Overall, while both novellas are perfectly acceptable stories, they feel like they should be part of a larger collection, and neither is satisfying enough to make this collection worthwhile. A marketing decision indeed. Still, for a primer on the Pattern Jugglers, the collection is worth reading.

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