Review: Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-7528-8908-5

(Review first published on the ASIM website, February 2008)

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There’s a double layer of prediction implicit in the packaging of Gollancz’s reissuing of eight recent SF works as ‘Future Classics’. The first layer is that, as science fiction, these novels present an image of society as it may unfold in the decades, centuries, or millennia hence; the second layer is that these eight books, supposedly excellent examples of their craft, will in time come to be seen as classics of latter-day fin-de-siècle SF. Revelation Space is, for me, the midpoint, the half-way mark, the fourth Future Classic I’ve read and reviewed in recent months (which is not to imply that I personally intend to review all eight: I believe I’ve found other reviewers to tackle most of the remainder.) There’s no question that the four I’ve read have been good, very good, but projection of classic status is a tricky thing. Time, I suppose, will tell.

Alastair Reynolds is a British-born astrophysicist / writer, who has produced about a dozen SF novels and short story collections in the past eight years or so. Revelation Space is the first of his novels, several of which explore the same imagined universe portrayed here, though so far as I can establish each book is reasonably self-contained. The books are characterised by Reynolds’ rigid adherence to what’s possible according to the laws of physics, and by detailed and intelligent extrapolations of the divergence of human society as humanity expands into the Galaxy. Revelation Space itself is, in essence, a form of space opera, though it’s an example which scrupulously avoids the magical physics (of hyperdrive, inter-dimensional shortcuts, or whatever) that is typical of the subgenre.

The book opens with an archaeological expedition on the frontier planet of Resurgam, led by Dan Sylveste, a scholar and adventurer haunted (in a technological sense) by the ghost of his father, Calvin, an early proponent, and casualty, of attempts to transfer human personalities into machine memory. The dig uncovers some unusual ruins associated with Resurgam’s now-extinct alien society, the Amarantin, but there’s trouble in the air, fomented it seems by Sylveste’s rival Girardeau. Other threads of the story feature Ilia Volyova, an officer on the lighthugger spacecraft ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’, which is travelling to Sylveste’s last known port of call to acquire his services in attending to the ship’s captain, stricken by an aggressive alien diease; and the small-time (but proficient) assassin Ana Khouri, whose routine missions on the planet Yellowstone are interrupted when she’s kidnapped, then hired by the secretive Mademoiselle for a mysterious assignment on another world: Resurgam. These three threads are spatially very disparate, and I found it difficult for the first two hundred pages to perceive a justification for their presentation in parallel: Sylveste’s story I found intriguing from the start, helped considerably by the realistic feel of the archaeological site he’s exploring, but the Volyova thread in particular is difficult to warm to. It is not until one is a considerable distance into the narrative that there is any indication of convergence among the separate story-strands. This initial lack of connectivity is not aided by the characterisation, which although strong, clear, and plausible seemed to me to lack warmth, or any suggestion (beyond bare-bones hints) that the characters have lives and aspirations separate from their various chosen vocations. There’s a sense in which each of the characters is ruthless, single-minded, driven; I found myself at times viewing the protagonists more as vectors for the plot than as fully functional human beings, but this is an accusation that might also be levelled at a large fraction of other hard-SF works. In this case, it’s not that the characters aren’t conveyed as detailed individuals — they are — just that they’re often difficult to empathise with.

The book’s plotting is tight, for all that the action moves slowly in patches. (And where the pace slows, it’s generally an opportunity to take in the detail of Reynolds’ far-future vision which, while sometimes fanciful, can’t really be faulted.) Reynolds gradually builds the tension, events follow a logical (and often rather disturbing) course, and the scientific rigour of the work is as solid as anything in the analogously big-picture novels of Arthur C. Clarke or Stephen Baxter.

Overall, it’s an intriguing, memorable story, and presumably lays the foundations for Reynolds’ other explorations of the ‘Revelation Space’ universe. (To date, I’ve read only The Prefect, his most recent novel, which has the same carefully detailed feel to it but is a less expansive and, I think, more clearly told story, with more empathetic characters.) Revelation Space is not a perfect book, to my mind — as a first novel, I think Reynolds aimed too high here, and a more streamlined narrative would have made the book more accessible. But if hard SF is your thing, with a story that delivers on most of what it promises, Revelation Space is a good example of its kind, with definite flashes of brilliance, and Reynolds has certainly demonstrated that he has considerably more to contibute to the genre.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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