Saturday, June 19, 2010

Redemption Ark - Alastair Reynolds

Like last weekend I'm supposed to be social today and tomorrow. Since I am not quite done with my next book and it doesn't look like I will manage a review tomorrow, I decided to make good on my promise and move the missing review of Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series over. It turned out the January 2009 original was a bit sloppy so I a had to do some editing. Still not the best I've ever written but I hope it'll be informative at least.

I read Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space, some time ago and thought it an interesting book but one that on several points it leaves something to be desired. Reynolds has written four more books set in the same universe, as well as a number of shorter works. Three of the books should be read in publication order, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Chasm City and The Prefect are standalones. Allthough Chasm City is the second book in publication order, I decided to skip that for the moment and complete the trilogy first. Redemption Ark is an immediate sequel to Revelation Space and in many ways a major improvement over the first book. It does however delve rather deeply into exotic physics, even more than with Revelation Space you have to enjoy hard science fiction to like this book.

The Hell class weapons stored on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity have sent a signal back to their makers without the knowledge of Illia and Ana who still control the ship. Light years away in another solar system the builders of the weapons, a human faction called the conjoiners, people who have incorporated technology to enhance their lives and create a kind of shared consciousness, have picked up the signal. Until recently they have been distracted by a war with another faction, the Demarchists. Now that the conjoiners are winning this war resources can be spared to retrieve the weapons.

In the mean time in the Resurgam system, and I use this term for the sake of clarity only, due to the problems of sub light speed travel though the galaxy Reynolds’ time line is quite complicated, Illia and Ana become aware of another threat. Sylvestre’s actions in the previous book must have set off some galactic burglar alarm. They have attracted the attention of the alien entity responsible for the extinction of the Amarantin species a million years ago. The Inhibitors as Ana and Illia think of them, are Reynolds’ answer to the Fermi paradox, have begun preparations to sterilize the system again. And this time they mean to be more thorough. Illia and Ana see no other option than to use their ship to evacuate the entire population of Resurgam, some two hundred thousand people and employ the Hell class weapons to strike at the Inhibitors.

The highest circles within conjoiners faction are also aware of the Inhibitors. They have encountered them as well and think of them as the Wolves. Skade, a high ranking conjoiner, is tasked with their response to this new threat. One approach she means to try is retrieve the Hell-class weapons for use against the Wolves. To get them back she employs the help of Nevil Clavain, one of the oldest conjoiners alive. Skade does not tell him the complete strategy of dealing with the Wolves however, and when Clavain finds out he defects. The two conjoiners parties race for the Resurgam system to retrieve the Hell class weapons while the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity desperately tries to get the evacuation of the planet started.

As I mentioned in the introduction Reynolds throws in a great deal of physics into the book. During the galactic car chase between Skade and Clavain both factions use technology that reduce the inertia of their spacecrafts, making it possible to attain higher accelerations than the human body could possibly survive. He goes into quite a bit of detail on how this works and what the consequences of this lowered inertia would be. There is a theoretical basis for what he describes, the author is a trained physicist and astronomer after all, but I will admit this kind of physics goes way over my head. Reynolds makes sure to explain the more counter-intuitive consequences of relativity and the absence of inertia though. For me the physics didn’t interfere with the readability of the book but some interest in these matters is absolutely required to enjoy it.

In my Revelation Space review I mentioned the characterization and dialogue left something to be desired. Reynolds has made great progress there. While the first book featured a lot of cynical bastards he puts in quite a bit more emotion in this book. Clavain in particular struck me as an interesting character. He is someone who seems haunted by his past, I will have to read the short stories about him sometime. It isn’t limited to him however, the characters who featured in the first book attain a new depth in Redemption Ark. With a more diverse cast and better characterization this novel gets going a bit sooner than Revelation Space. It is still quite a heavy read though. My copy is printed in an extra wide format making the six hundred or so pages of the book seem quite long. There are also a number of places where the characters are mistrustful of each other and take too long to come to a compromise. Especially the scene in Chasm City, where H proposes a plan to reach Resurgam in time to stop Skade drags a bit.

I liked Revelation Space, I like Redemption Ark even more. Better written and faster paced than the previous book this novel will please the fans of uncut space opera. If you've come this far in the series reading Absolution Gap is simply not optional. The author leaves his characters with some serious problems to solve in the next part of the series. I suppose it is a bit of a middle book in that respect but there is a clear promise of a spectacular finish in the final book. Reynolds is one of those writers I need to read with generous breaks between the book to let it sink in and I do think the standalone Revelation Space novels are a little bit better than the trilogy but it is quite clear than Reynolds has created something special with the Revelation Space trilogy.

Book Details
Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 646
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07384-5
First published: 2002

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