Belladonna Nights and Other Stories is a great way to get into Alastair Reynolds’ short fiction. Ever since reading the beautiful “Nightingale” in Galactic North, set in the Revelation Space universe, I’ve been alert to a theme of personal loss and grief caused by separation from a loved one or because of the imminence of death. Amid all the carefully constructed scientific detail that Reynolds is so good at there is always the deeply moving human struggle with the inevitable or unchangeable realities of life in different worlds. It’s a special strain of thoughtful melancholy that Reynolds can evoke, and it comes through often in Belladonna Nights and Other Stories.
The title story, “Belladonna Nights”, brings this out in an especially touching way. It’s set in the strange universe of the 2008 novel, House of Suns, where lines of clones or “shatterlings” make circuits of the galaxy over hundreds of thousands of years, then gather to thread their memories into a central repository of sorts that they all share. The story is told by Shaula, one of the shatterlings, who notes her old friend Campion (a central figure in House of Suns) seeming to avoid her. Then, instead of talking to her directly, he starts leaving bunches of Belladonna flowers by her door. She realizes that the flowers are a reference to a special protocol for abandoning one reunion site and choosing another.
Still puzzled, she manages to confront him, and he takes her to a high tower from which they can observe the shatterling space ships in orbit overhead. They can only see through the ceiling of this tower, however, when Campion removes the filters that block their sight. That’s part of the theme, but I can’t say any more without spoiling the experience. The story becomes a haunting one about choosing memories and facing the inevitable.
A similar theme pervades “Different Seas” though the setting is in our earthly near-future on a sailing vessel in the Pacific heading for port in Quito. Lilith is the lone crew member who suddenly loses control when the boat turns toward a dangerous offshore raft farm. She radios for help and learns that a major solar flare has knocked out most electronic equipment around the world, including the guidance system of her clipper. The only help she can get is from a “proxy” or collapsible android-like figure that has to be activated by a remote pilot. The blank-faced robot comes to life with a human face as soon as a woman named Kyleen at some distant location takes it over. Kyleen and Lilith form a bond as they set about fixing the broken guidance system, a feat that involves Lilith climbing a dangerously listing mast. What we learn about Kyleen leads to the emotional climax of the story, and Reynolds pulls this off with a marvelous balance of the details of handling the vessel and the human closeness that forms between two strangers.
In “Holdfast” the scene switches to a far-future space war in which the soldier narrator, known as Battle-Mother, has landed on a Jovian-type planet to carry on a fight with what she thinks of as a maggot race of ruthless killers. She finds herself tracking a fully armored maggot approaching over dark mountains, each of them trying to destroy the other. Yet they come to rest in plain view of each other without firing the fatal shot. Gradually, a fine network of light streaks spreads over both of them as they look across a space between two mountains. Both trapped, seemingly about to be engulfed in the living mass of these black formations, Battle-Mother and her opponent Greymouth, find a way to communicate. Again it’s the bond, this time between human and alien, that brings out the force of Reynolds’ vision about the use that is made of soldiers and their emotions in the midst of war.
Belladonna Nights and Other Stories takes us through a remarkable range of settings. In one future of our own solar system (“At Death’s Door”), humans have learned to adapt their own bodies to the full range of conditions on each planet rather than trying to terraform them to support the human body that can survive in conditions on Earth. That is the background for a character’s search for meaning as he considers whether or not to end his life. In “A Map of Mercury”, an artist has gone to live on Mercury with a group committed to escaping the hierarchies of power to create a life without money or government and where they change their bodies to suit the violent extremes of the planet. That theme comes up again in “Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee” in which a brilliant scientist has succeeded in adapting materials and herself to be able to carry out explorations on the Sun.
The last three stories are all set in the Revelation Space universe and are my personal favorites. “Open and Shut” features the Prefect Dreyfus, whose remit is to monitor the electoral process on each of the thousands of habitats orbiting Yellowstone, called collectively the Glitterband. He has a brief and moving encounter with his superior Jane Aumonier, who is recovering from horrible wounds in a medical facility.
“Plague Music” brings out grim details of life in Chasm City after the melding plague has deformed and nearly obliterated the buildings set into the sides of the great chasm that gives the city its name. We watch a cleaning crew whose job it is to burn out the tree-like formations of the plague that pervade the buildings. Occasionally they come across “sprokers” or people who have been caught in these growths and petrified. They have to drill holes in them, insert probes and test to see if there is any sentience left. If not, they burn them out of the walls. One member of this crew is drawn to an especially beautiful woman sproker whose song only he can hear.
The third, and the final story in the collection, is “Night Passage.” Here the captain of a transport vessel carrying thousands of people in reefer sleep is awakened by the second in command who explains that the ship has been taken over by a group of Conjoiners on board whose plans backfired and nearly destroyed the ship. Conjoiners are enhanced humans whose minds are linked, enabling them to achieve technological breakthroughs beyond normal human capabilities. The ship’s engines have been disabled and it is drifting toward a great black anomaly that will tear the ship apart before repairs on the engines can be completed. This is another story with surprising twists that ultimately turns out to be about shame. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.
This is a great collection of stories. In each one, Reynolds combines a mastery of scientific detail, ranging from space ships to monitoring the behavior of flocks of birds, with a testing of human limits in extreme situations. There are surprise endings and wrenching emotional confrontations. As diverse as the story settings are, a few dominant themes come through with great force. There are a couple that I found too short to achieve the effects they were aiming for and one in a setting that was more an indulgence of the author’s love of the Wild West than science fiction. But, on the whole, the collection deepens my appreciation for Reynolds’ mastery of the short form.