Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES: speculative vs military in a space operetta

Rob Weber at the blog Val’s Random Comments has inaugurated a “Short Fiction Month“, proposing a month of daily reviews of short sf stories, with a review of Alastair Reynold’s “Scales” (text available here).

This story is a good choice for the first review in the series as it allegorises and extends the definition of science fiction in terms of cognitive estrangement by tying it with ontological estrangement.

The “scales” of the title are the literal scales of the alien lizard’s skin but also the scales of estrangement from our ordinary reality, as the story spirals out from Earth and the solar system to another star system, to “an N-dimensional tangle of interconnected wormhole pathways”, to an adjunct dimension in a reality stack, to “mind-wrenching chasms of meta-dimensional structure”.

A meta-fictional sense of the title would be that of musical scales, the arrangement of noes in ascending and descending order. This short story, only 2,000 words long, reads as if Reynolds the writer is going through the basic SF scales, going as high as he can before descending once again.

Identity is also estranged. The hero metamorphoses from an ordinary human called Nico inducted into the humans’ war against the lizards to more and more estranged entities, each characterised by the denomination “thing-that-was-once-Nico”.

Reality and personal identity are both in flux. The combattants’ minds and bodies are

“in constant, self-evolving flux as the bedrock of reality shifts and squirms beneath them”.

The basic matric of the military science fiction is set out as the uneasy combination of the pluralist speculative element and its binary overcoding by the oppositions of war:

“The terms of engagement have become so abstract—so, frankly, higher-mathematical—that the conflict is more like a philosophical dialogue, a debate between protagonists who agree on almost everything except the most trifling, hair-splitting details.

And yet it must still be to the death—the proliferation of one self-replicating, pan-dimensional class of entities is still at the expense of  the other”.

However the tale is more a deconstruction of military science fiction than an example of it, as the speculative element relativises the oppositional structure. Sometimes we need to ascend to the highest reaches of abstraction to undo our empirical vision of the other as pure enemy and to perceive our speculative identity.

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