Even for a genre like SF, where limitless flights of imagination are as highly valued as they are rare, Robert Reed is sui generis. His mind is a bottomless well of mind-boggling ideas, the likes of which I haven't seen since the heyday of Barrington J. Bayley. What's more, Reed is an author who's never let an idea go to waste. His prolificacy in short fiction is simply ridiculous. There's literally not a month that goes by that a tale of his doesn't appear in the pages of either Asimov's or F&SF; you must figure those magazines just set aside a certain page allotment for him each month as an editorial policy.
The thing about idea fiction is that it's often more interested in the idea than in putting a human face to the story in which the idea is framed. Reed is usually really good at avoiding this pitfall, but alas, I found the dauntingly ambitious Sister Alice a disappointment that falls right into it. The ideas here are amazing. But the story lacks heart, and remains such an emotionally aloof experience throughout its length that it was all I could do to get through it. You wouldn't think that the potential death of all life in the universe would be a theme to inspire indifferent yawns, but Sister Alice managed to pry more than one out of me.
To understand Sister Alice at all, it's important to realize that, for all its SF trappings, it's really a fantasy novel. Setting his story ten million years in the future has allowed Reed to deal, not only in technologies indistinguishable from magic, but magic itself. (The word "magic" is in fact used to refer to the powers of the titular character.) Reed's prose often evokes ancient myths and legends; there's almost a biblical quality to the language he uses to relate the novel's backstory, in which the human race, having nearly destroyed itself across the galaxy by war after increasingly hostile war, finally came to its senses and called a time out. It was decided that an elite group of Families would be established to rule over humanity in a benign way; their members would be bestowed with marvelous powers (how, we aren't told, as details only get in the way of legends, after all), which only become more and more marvelous as the millennia and generations pass. As the novel opens, the Families are practically gods, their members immortal and invincible, able to cross light-years as if by thought alone. The themes here are extraordinarily on point, especially those that address the way in which humanity seems to rely upon, and indeed need, the leadership of gods for direction. What is even better is how, as the story unfolds, Reed conveys how ill-advised such reliance is. Whom humanity makes gods they will ultimately destroy.
Alice represents the 12th generation of the Chamberlain Family, and is millions of years old as the novel opens. An experiment at the Core of the Milky Way to create a new universe (after all, that's what gods do) has gone awry, and has resulted in a destructive chain reaction that threatens to destroy the entire galaxy and the countless life in it. While others involved in the experiment have stayed behind at the Core to try to fix the problem, Alice has returned to the cradle of humanity, old Earth, to submit herself for punishment. But first, she travels to the Chamberlain homestead and bestows her powers upon the Family's youngest member, Ord, in the hopes that Ord can undo, to some degree, what she has done.
The rest of the novel is more or less one big chase sequence, as Ord finds himself doggedly pursued throughout the galaxy by arch enemies, while he himself has no idea exactly what Alice expects of him. We are treated to scenes of such dazzling scope it's difficult to take them all in.
But that turns out to be the novel's Achilles Heel. Such attention is given to being dazzling that it's difficult to find a character of sufficiently human scope — for crying out loud, everyone in the book is a quasi-deity, after all — with whom to identify. The opening scenes succeed the best at humanizing the characters — I particularly liked the fact that these families, having lived in a peace that's lasted so long no one knows what real danger is anymore, have to stage mock wars for entertainment. Ord is very likable at first, but once he dons Alice's godly powers, he's not exactly one for whom you can feel much empathy. As the book progresses, he becomes harder and harder to get a handle on — as does the story.
Sister Alice deals with timelines and distances on a cosmic scale. Tens of thousands of years will pass from one chapter to the next, but the effect is to trivialize these wonders, strip them of significance. One cannot get a good idea of what the distance from the Earth to the galaxy's Core really means if it's treated like a trip to the grocery store. When ten million years seems like one weekend, what should be majestic and awe-inspring becomes bland and banal. And I don't think good SF ought to leave me feeling that way.
I remain an enormous admirer of Robert Reed's, and his short stories and novelettes will always be the ones I turn to first when the new issue of F&SF or Asimov's pops up. But if Sister Alice is one of his failures (and even that might be too strong a word for me to be willing to use), it must be noted that it's the kind of failure a writer must possess a staggering talent to achieve. Whether I like or dislike one of his stories, Robert Reed never fails to make an impression. And that alone will keep me reading his work.