Saturday, May 22, 2010

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

I did not quite have enough reading time to finish a second book this week so I've salvaged another older review again. I started this blog with a review of Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds. It's a bit odd to have only the last book in a trilogy on the blog so I moved the first part today and will probably move the second part sometime in the near future. This review was written in July 2008, I've done some minor polishing but it is mostly in original shape.

The first book of the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds and his début novel. It’s also the first book I have read by this author and I must say I am impressed. Not that the book is flawless but there is a lot of potential here. I understand the author was still working at the European Space Agency when he wrote this novel, before giving up his job to pursue a full time writing career. Not surprisingly Revelation Space is hard science fiction on a grand scale. Not light reading but once you get into the story definitely rewarding.

Set in the 26th century mankind has escaped the solar system and settled many planets. Despite scientific theories that claim the opposite, they find the galaxy relatively empty of intelligent life, apart from the remains of societies that were destroyed ages ago. One man who is interested in this apparent lack of intelligent life is archaeologist Dan Sylvestre, leader of an expedition to the now lifeless planet of Resurgam. Resurgam was once home to the Amarantin, a species that appeared to be on the brink of archiving space flight. They were destroyed in what archaeologists now call “the event”, a cataclysm that took place almost a million years ago. Sylvestre is dead set on finding out what caused their extinction, in fact, he believes that such knowledge is necessary to ensure the survival of humanity. Unfortunately for Sylvestre not everybody agrees with him. After decades on the inhospitable planet there are those who want to terraform the planet and give up the search for the Amarantin secrets. They stage a successful coup and Sylvestre spends much of the next decade in prison. Imprisonment is not the problem Sylvestere face either. He seems to have made quite a few enemies along the way and some of them are now hunting for him.

Ilia Volyova is one of the hunters. She is an ultranaut on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity, one of the great spaceships that travel between the inhabited systems in the galaxy at speeds slightly below the speed of light. The Ultras rarely go down to a planet and spend a lot of their time in reefersleep, a kind of cryogenic preservation of their body. The ships captain is a centuries old Ultra who’s body barely contains living flesh. He is mostly cybernetic. Sylvestre’s father has saved him some decades ago from death but now he is infected with the melding plague and nothing seems to be able to stop the disease from spreading. Ilia is determined to find Sylvestre to save her captain. Apart from a dying captain the lighthugger has other problems. Their gunnery officer has gone insane and Ilia has had to kill him. He needs to be replaced. When the lighthugger visits Yellowstone, Sylvestre’s last known location, another of Sylvestre’s hunters, a mysterious character referred to as the Mademoiselle, uses this opportunity to place the assassin Ana Khouri on board. Posing as gunnery officer Ana’s real mission is to kill Sylveste, no matter the cost.

It took me an awful long time to figure this out but one of the important themes in this novel is the Fermi paradox, a proposition by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi who wondered why if the conditions for intelligent life to evolve must be common we still haven’t found any signs of it. Reynolds solves the paradox by introducing a force than suppresses the evolution of space faring civilizations. It is a pure coincidence of course but I recently read 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Arthur C. Clarke does just the opposite, an alien intelligence tries to steer evolution towards intelligent life in those books. From a scientific point of view Reynolds’ approach probably makes more sense.

As I said, this book has potential but it also has flaws. Especially early in the book it is a chore to keep the time frame of the various story lines straight. Travel faster than the speed of light has not been invented (it seems Reynolds is with Einstein on this one) so the journey of Ilia and Ana starts several decades before the storyline of Sylvestre to enable them to cross the vast distance between Yellowstone and Resurgam. Reynolds mentions a date in the chapter title but since he changes point of view in his chapters frequently those are not always a good guide.

A bigger problem with the book is that Reynolds takes an awful lot of time to get to the point. He takes his time describing the settings (Chasm City looks intriguing by the way), detail the history of the galaxy and of course elaborate of various astronomical phenomena the characters encounter. In the end all three of our main characters are being manipulated by others but he reveals it ever so slowly, which results in a lot of explaining at the end of the novel. I wouldn’t call the final chapters of the book disappointing but the way he wraps the story up is not flawless. Another minor irritation is that especially towards the end of the book all characters become increasingly cynical. It leads to some awkward dialogue,Sylvestre’s wife Pascale seems to suffer most from this.

Definitely room for improvement but in the end this book is well worth reading. It is a book that requires some patience though. It takes a while for the pieces to fall into place. So sit back end enjoy the ride. Reynolds certainly adds enough interesting sights to the book to keep the reader entertained. His professional background clearly shows, I very much liked his descriptions of star systems. I also liked the central theme of this book, once it became clear to me. All in all a good début for Reynolds and a solid basis the continue to explore the Revelation Space setting. It has definitely put the direct sequels Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 545
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-748-5
First published: 2000


  1. I haven't yet read anything by Alastair Reynolds but this book sounds like it might be just a little too high above my current scifi level. I think he just released a new book that actually sounded interesting and I was thinking of trying that one (though the title currently escapes me)

  2. That would be Terminal World I think. I haven't read it but from the description it looks a little less hard SF than his Revelation Space books.