Saturday, July 4, 2009

Absolution Gap - Alastair Reynolds

Absolution Gap is the final part in a series of three linked novels set in the Revelation Space universe. Reynolds has written two other, standalone, novels as well as a bunch of short fiction in this universe. Those can be read independently but it is essential that you read Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap in that order. This novel wraps up the story began in Revelation Space in a quite unexpected way. It seems the Revelation Space universe holds many surprises.

As with the previous books Absolution Gap contains three, converging, story lines set apart by decades at the beginning of the novel to take space travel at relativistic speeds into account. The first story line opens in 2675 on Ararat, where the crew en evacuees of Resurgam have made their found refuge. They know it is only temporary though, and after nearly two decades of relative piece, the first signs of Inhibitor activity in the system are being seen. Scorpio, who has taken on the day to day management of the colony, knows their reprieve is over. He goes out to get their leader, the ancient rebel Conjoiner, Nevil Clavain back from his self-imposed exile.

Decades earlier, in the system 107 Piscium, the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension is looking for trade opportunities. In particular the remains of an advanced but now extinct civilizations. Alien artifacts still fetch a good price in some parts of the galaxy. In their recent exploits they've been guided by the opportunist Quaiche. His results have been disappointing however, and now the captain wants results. To ensure Quaiche's best efforts his lover is being held captive in a torturous device called a scrimshaw suit. Fortunately for Quaiche he spots promising signs of possible alien artifacts on a moon of one of the gas giants of the system. Quaiche decides the investigate the place and takes his ship in closer. A decision he will come to regret.

More than a century later in 2727, the moon Quaiche named Hela is populated by a large groups of humans. Most of the economy is fueled but the trade in alien artifacts as well as the strange religion that has sprung up on the moon. In one of the remote settlements a young girl grows up. When Rashmika was about nine years old her older brother left the family to work for one of the churches as a demolition expert. The experience upset Rashmike since she was sure her brother was being lied to during the recruitment interview and contact with him has been very limited ever since. In the following years Rashmika has studied the alien culture that once inhabited the moon. She is intelligent and spots the flaws, unlikely doctrines and outright lies in the churches' teachings. She feels herself compelled to seek out the religious leader of her world and find out what happened to her brother. But equally important, or perhaps more so, she wants to know the truth about her world and the gas giant it circles.

Reynolds got himself into a bit of trouble at the end of the second book. The heroes of our story seem to be almost out of resources and their foe is almost unbeatable. The conclusion that they need outside help seems justified. But where in a universe that has been systematically cleansed of all intelligent life do you find something that can take on the Inhibitors? And do you dare let them loose on an unsuspecting universe?

To answer the first question Reynolds throws in another batch of exotic physics. Brane cosmology. I must admit I hadn't heard of it before reading this book but it ties in with some of the theories he mentioned in Redemption Ark. On the whole Absolution Gap is a lot lighter on physics than Redemption Ark, which definitely does not hurt the book. I must say the use of Brane cosmology did give the book a bit of a deus ex-machina feel but Reynolds solves that neatly in the final chapters.

The second ties into the story of Scorpio. Scorpio is a Hyperpig, a genetic experiment that gave pigs almost human intelligence and a more human like physique. I always have a Muppets moment when he appears on the stage, but despite that strange connection in my brain Reynolds has made Scorpio into something special. Intelligent or not, Hyperpigs are not very appreciated in human society and Scorpio in particular has suffered a lot of abuse. At one point his life mainly consisted of violence and other crimes. Clavain however, showed him that not all humans are as cruel as his former master. Despite his limited ability for long term planning Scorpio is one of the most respected pigs and community leaders on Ararat. But he's still a pig. Not only the humans see him as such, Scorpio is constantly trying to prove to himself he is not the criminal he was when the Conjoiners found him in Chasm City. Every major decision he takes is contested, which results in some interesting power struggles.

At some points the story dragged a little. At well over six hundred pages in Gollancz's extra wide format this book takes a while to finish. I think it could have been a bit tighter written, especially in the Rashmika's sections where Reynolds pays a lot of attention to the geological features of Hela and the technical challenges of living is such an environment. In a way it reminded me of some passages in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. In those books the struggle between those who want to keep Mars pristine and those who want to terraform is a major plot element. In Absolution Gap we could have done with a little less.

That being said, Absolution Gap is a very satisfying conclusion to the the story that began with Revelation Space. Where the first book in the series shows Reynolds' inexperience at some points, by the time he hits Absolution Gap he is writing space opera at its best. Reynolds creates a great story on the largest canvas possibly. If you like this kind of story, Reynolds is a must read. I'm very sure I will end up reading more of Reynolds' stuff in the not too distant future.

Book Details
Title: Absolution Gap
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 662
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-575-07557-0
First published: 2003

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