Reynolds wrote his first four published science fiction short stories while still a graduate student, in 1989–1991; they appeared in 1990–1992, his first sale being to Interzone. In 1991 Reynolds graduated and moved from Scotland to the Netherlands to work at ESA. He then started spending much of his writing time on a first novel, which eventually turned into Revelation Space, while the few short stories he submitted from 1991–1995 were rejected. This ended in 1995 when his story "Byrd Land Six" was published, which he says marked the beginning of a more serious phase of writing. As of 2011[update] he has published over forty shorter works and nine novels. His works are hard science fiction veiled behind space opera and noir toned stories, and reflect his professional expertise with physics and astronomy, included by extrapolating future technologies in terms that are consistent, for the most part, with current science. Reynolds has said he prefers to keep the science in his books to what he personally believes will be possible, and he does not believe faster-than-light travel will ever be possible, but that he adopts science he believes will be impossible when it is necessary for the story. Most of Reynolds's novels contain multiple storylines that originally appear to be completely unrelated, but merge later in the story.
Five of his novels and several of his short stories take place within one consistent future universe, usually now called the Revelation Space universe after the first novel published in it, although it was originally developed in short stories for several years before the first novel. Although most characters appear in more than one novel, the works set within this future timeline rarely have the same protagonists twice. Often the protagonists from one work belong to a group that is regarded with suspicion or enmity by the protagonists of another work. While a great deal of science fiction reflects either very optimistic or dystopian visions of the human future, Reynolds's future worlds are notable in that human societies have not departed to either positive or negative extremes, but instead are similar to those of today in terms of moral ambiguity and a mixture of cruelty and decency, corruption and opportunity, despite their technology being dramatically advanced.
The Revelation Space series includes five novels, two novellas, and eight short stories set over a span of several centuries, spanning approximately 2200 to 40 000, although the novels are all set in a 300-year period spanning from 2427 to 2727. In this universe, extraterrestrial sentience exists but is elusive, and interstellar travel is primarily undertaken by a class of vessel called a lighthugger which only approaches the speed of light (faster than light travel is possible, but it is so dangerous that no race uses it). Fermi's paradox is explained as resulting from the activities of an inorganic alien race referred to by its victims as the Inhibitors, which exterminates sentient races if they proceed above a certain level of technology. The trilogy consisting of Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap (the Inhibitor trilogy) deal with humanity coming to the attention of the Inhibitors and the resultant war between them.
Century Rain takes place in a future universe independent of the Revelation Space universe and has different rules, such as faster-than-light travel being possible through a system of portals similar to wormholes. Century Rain also departs substantially from Reynolds's previous works, both in having a protagonist who is much closer to the perspective of our real world (in fact he is from a version of our past), serving as a proxy for the reader in confronting the unfamiliarity of the advanced science fiction aspects and in having a much more linear storytelling process. Reynolds's previous protagonists started out fully absorbed in the exoticisms of the future setting and his previous Revelation Space works have several interlinked story threads, not necessarily contemporaneous. According to Alastair himself, no sequel will ever be made on Century Rain.
Pushing Ice is also a standalone story, with characters from much less distant in the future than in any of his other novels, set into a framework storyline that extends much further into the future of humanity than any of his previous novels. It contains an alternative interpretation of the Fermi paradox: intelligent sentient life in this universe is extremely scarce.
The Prefect marked a return to the Revelation Space universe. Like Chasm City, it is a stand-alone novel within the Revelation Space universe. It is set prior to any of the other Revelation Space novels, though still 200 years after the original human settlement of the Epsilon Eridani system. It was published in the United Kingdom on 2 April 2007.
House of Suns is a standalone novel set in the same universe as his novella "Thousandth Night" from the One Million A.D. anthology. It was released in the UK on 17 April 2008 and in the US on 2 June 2009. Reynolds described it as "Six million years in the future, starfaring clones, tensions between human and robot metacivilisations, King Crimson jokes."
Terminal World, published in March 2010 was described by Reynolds as "a kind of steampunk-tinged planetary romance, set in the distant future". As with Century Rain, Reynolds has said that he does not plan any further work in the universe of Terminal World.
In June 2009 Reynolds signed a new deal, worth £1 million, with his British publishers for ten books to be published over the next ten years.
Between 2012 and 2015 Reynolds released three novels set in a new universe called Poseidon's Children: Blue Remembered Earth (2012), On the Steel Breeze (2014), and Poseidon's Wake (2015). The novels comprise a hard science fiction trilogy dealing with the expansion of the human species into the solar system and beyond, and the emergence of Africa as a spacefaring, technological super-state.
His Doctor Who novel Harvest of Time was published in June 2013.
In March 2017 Reynolds announced his next novel would be a sequel to The Prefect, marking the first novel length return to the Revelation Space universe since 2007. The novel is expected to be published in early 2018.
Reynolds's fiction has received three awards and several other nominations. His second novel Chasm City won the 2001 British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. His short story "Weather" won the Japanese National Science Fiction Convention's Seiun Award for Best Translated Short Fiction. His novels Absolution Gap and The Prefect have also been nominated for previous BSFA awards. Reynolds has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times, for his novels Revelation Space,Pushing Ice and House of Suns. In 2010, he won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for his short story "The Fixation". His novella Troika made the shortlist for the 2011 Hugo Awards.
Zima Blue and Other Stories. San Francisco, CA: Night Shade Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59780-058-9 (Contains nearly all of the author's non-Revelation Space universe stories at the time of publication.) re printed Zima Blue and Other Stories. London: Gollancz, 2009. ISBN 0-575-08405-7 (British edition with three stories not included in the original publication. Introduction by Paul McAuley.)
"Enola" – Originally published in Interzone #54 (December 1991).
"Soirée" – Originally published in Celebration: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the British Science Fiction Association (March 2008), Ian Whates, ed..
"The Star-Surgeon's Apprentice" – Originally published in The Starry Rift (April 2008), Jonathan Strahan, ed..
"Fury" – Originally published in Eclipse Two: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, (November 2008)..
The Fixation – Originally published in a Finnish language, Hannun basaarissa a limited edition booklet of about 200 copies in tribute to Hannu Blommila in Finland (2007); reprinted in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3 (February 2009), George Mann, ed..