Sunday, 5 September 2010

Reading update: Revelation Space

I've just finished reading Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, the author's first novel, published back in the dim and distant days of 2000. ( Surely that can't be 10 years ago, can it? )

Revelation Space is a vast space opera ( in all senses - it's over 500 pages long ) which is an introduction to Reynolds' universe and a treasure trove of Big SF Ideas. Alastair Reynolds is a former research astronomer with the European Space Agency, so you know you're in fairly safe hands when it comes to the actual science in his science fiction. Conversely, like other authors of his ilk, such as Asimov, Niven or Benford, he can neglect his characters to a degree, in favour of the physics of his universe. But, what a universe:

In the year 2551 on the planet Resurgam ( Latin for "I shall rise again", apparently ) hard-bitten, egotistical archaeologist Dan Sylveste is unearthing the long-dead civilisation of the planet's former occupants, the bird-like Amarantin. Their civilisation was wiped out over night by a catastrophic stellar event, which Sylveste suspects may happen again.....

In the year 2543 the post-human crew of a "lighthugger" ( a craft that travels close to the speed of light - no FTL travel in Reynolds' universe ) are on a quest to cure their captain, the victim of a hideous "melding" plague that is causing him to literally grow into the ship. Hot space-pilot Ilia Volyova and her mutually-suspicious crewmates are tracking down the one man who can help them, willingly or not, Dan Sylveste.....

And in the year 2524 on the planet Yellowstone, soldier-turned-assassin Ana Khouri is blackmailed by a mysterious "Mademoiselle" into killing one man in order to save the universe. And that man is ( you've guessed it ) Dan Sylveste.....

All these plotlines eventually converge ( and it does take a while ) in time and space as the characters head towards an encounter with a classic SF concept: the Big Dumb Object. The payoff is worth the often meandering plot and variable pace as Reynolds reveals the alien artefact at the heart of the story and produces a genuine sense of wonder. Mind-bending concepts abound as the true story of the Amarantin and their destruction is revealed. In fact, my head's still spinning from sentences such as "These ripples of causal shock met the incoming particles and established a grid of causal interference, a standing wave extending symmetrically into the past and the future". Phew!

Aside from the dizzying space operatics, the book is also layered with dense descriptions of this far-off future. There are evolved humans such as the cyborg Ultras and the mysterious Conjoiners. There are even more mysterious alien races such as the enigmatic Shrouders, hiding within impenetrable space/time bubbles called Shrouds, and the supremely alien Pattern Jugglers, gestalt intelligences living in planet-wide neural networks. Reynolds whisks us from the arid deserts of Resurgam, to the vertiginous Blade Runner-esque environment of Chasm City, to the half-deserted, Gothic vastness of the lighthugger spaceship Nostalgia For Infinity. The weakest link in the story is the fact that hardly any of the characters are likeable; they are mostly driven, obsessed loners, caught up in plots and counter-plots, given to lecturing each other when the author needs to info-dump on the reader. But that is a familiar problem in hard SF and Reynolds compensates for this with all the other wonders of his complex and surprising universe.

Incidentally, Reynolds writes a very interesting blog which is well worth a look and share its name with a Flaming Lips song. Which is nice.

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