Monday, March 20, 2023

Six Neptune's Reach stories by Gregory Feeley

Short Stories Review: Six Neptune's Reach stories by Gregory Feeley

a review by Rich Horton

Gregory Feeley has been working on a novel to be called Neptune's Reach for nearly four decades now, and it has finally been completed. Much of the novel (as well as, I believe, some pendants) has appeared as short stories in Asimov's, Analog, and Clarkesworld. This novel has just been completed, and these six stories from 2021 through 2023 are among the last parts of the novel (or are perhaps pendants.)* As with the entirety of this work, they are ambitious and surprising and present a vision of the colonization of the outer Solar System that both stands with a long SF tradition and strikes new ground -- new modes of habitation, new forms of life and intelligence, new philosophies of existence and adaptation compete and cooperate. Presumably the finished novel will be (and has been) revised to some extent from the published stories, but we can be confident it will be one of the most exciting uses of the "mosaic novel" form since Van Vogt more or less invented it.

(*I should note that two further stories are in inventory, at Clarkesworld and Asimov's, and presumably will appear sometime soon -- the novel, of course, will take longer to get into print.)

What the stories do, individually and as a whole, is present a compelling picture of a human (and non-human, and post-human) future, with adventure, fascinating speculative science, beautiful vistas of a a real yet alien setting, a vision of a future building to yet a farther future, political strife, generational strife, love stories, engineering, exploration, alternate intelligences, alternate body forms -- very much a celebration of sorts of medium-future (as opposed to near- or far-) SF. I am truly looking forward to the finished novel, to see how these stories, revised as they may or may not be, work together. In the mean time, here are very brief looks at the stories in this series from 2021 to the present. They are each impressive works on their own (though some, I think, do work better in the context of the rest of the novel) and they make it clear that the finished work will stand as one of the most impressive stories of  expansion into the Outer System in SF history. (The first snippet here is taken from my Locus review -- the others are all from after my reviewing time.)

"The Children of the Wind" (Asimov's, July-August 2021)

Gregory Feeley’s long series of stories about a fraught attempt to colonize the environs of Neptune continues with “The Children of the Wind”. This story concerns the events that precipitated the action of last year’s “Wandering Rocks” – an uprising/riot/revolution on the Centaur which ended up with many of the children of the original crew leaving. This story reflects the confusing happenings of that critical day through a series of viewpoint characters, and never tells us how they coalesce, nor gives us a definitive description of what went on. The result is an appropriately chaotic narrative, reflecting the scary and ambiguous actions through characters who truly don’t understand. The whole thing shows a microcosmic society as riven by class, age, and race divisions as any human society – and for me, it simply hones my desire to see the eventual complete novel that is coming.

"In a Net I Seek to Hold the Wind" (Clarkesworld, September 2021)

Set on and near the tiny moon Galatea, a man remembers the building of a skyhook (space elevator) into the depths of Neptune -- then wakens from a Mind-induced figment to realize this never happened, but the Minds wanted to understand his thoughts about it. And we see his circumstances -- a "sixth" of a group working on Galatea, making it habitable, planning for future projects -- his skyhook dream or more likely a different one -- discussing fiction and the Minds with another, younger, person; thinking of children with his lover -- and then an accident intervenes. This is one of the less self-contained of these Neptune stories, but it remains fascinating simply building our picture of the beings and technology of Neptune's reaches.

"The Silent Strength of Things" (Clarkesworld, October 2022)

This story is told from the POV of an entity called Kitsune, which lives on the moon Triton. It is engaged in a sort of battle with another entity, the Snow Woman. The Snow Woman is an AI charged with protecting Triton from organic contamination. Kitsune, who seems to have been created by the Minds (AIs originally created by humans, but which have become wholly independent since arriving in Neptune space) apparently escaped from them and is now resident on Triton, battling to "create mischief", and, more fundamentally, to survive. The battle of these two creatures is well-depicted -- and the result is something unexpected and quite different.

"A Stone's Throw" (Analog, September-October 2022)

This is a brief piece, nice work but reading like an outtake of sorts from the main action of the novel. (I have no idea whether or not this incident will appear in the final novel.) It tells of two lovers, who meet on the Centaur (the ship on which humans came to Neptune) but one of whom leaves with her people to settle a moon. The other schemes to find a way to reach that moon from the Centaur (very difficult due to orbital mechanics) -- and in the end has to settle for help from a Mind. The Mind is very intelligent -- but also has its own agenda.

"The Fortunate Isles" (Clarkesworld, January 2023)

This one feels like a capstone to the series -- perhaps it is intended as such. It's a framed story, and as with all the best framed stories, the frame is critical. It's told by someone from the far future, based on the diaries on one Hai, a light-footed human living in the "Heights" of Neptune space (that is, distantly orbiting Neptune.) And it's addressed to "an unadapted person" -- that is, one of us. Hai comes across a distress signal from six refugees, and of course rescues them. And finds out that he's been, essentially, press-ganged into supporting them in what they call "the Great Work". The rest of the story shows what work that might be, and where it is -- the depths of Neptune -- and hints at its real goals. I won't detail what's really involved, except to say that besides the cool hard SF nature of all this, the story's framing, and the way that turns our focus from the past of the novel (us) to the extended time taken by the novel (ending with Hai's mission) to the future, represented by the narrator and by the hints at a future unconceived of by those who began the journey to Neptune, or even by most of those who have made their homes (many differing homes for widely differing entities) there.

"The Breaking of the Vessels" (Asimov's, March-April 2023)

Here's a story that discusses the fate and dreams of the much-changed people -- or their descendants -- who left the Centaur and now inhabit varying kinds of homes in the Heights of Neptune -- ships, mostly, it seems, or tiny moons. They are human but radically different, spurning gravity, spurning individuality, accepting a continually changing environment as Neptune's divergent colonists plan and build different futures, futures very possibly far from Neptune, or Sol. Again, this is a story that for full appreciation depends on the rest of the novel (or so it seems to me) -- but it effectively evokes the themes of the entire book.

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