Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Belgariad by David Eddings

As I mentioned previously I’ve been working through my slush pile of books, which consists of whatever I happen to pick up at the used book store that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ll usually set them aside if something else comes up, but I do try to make it back to them occasionally.  There are a couple of gems in there from time to time, as well.  And I realize that life is short, but I try to do triage in advance, and I have a general rule that I have to finish everything that looks interesting enough to start, just because sometimes things end up pleasantly surprising you.

That’s one paragraph in and I haven’t said anything about the subject of the review yet – somewhere an English teacher is weeping.  So, thesis statement:  I didn’t like this one very much at all.  The Belgariad is a five-volume fantasy epic  by David Eddings.  (One good point:  the volumes are of quite moderate size.)  I’d heard vague favorable things about it in the past somewhere.  In retrospect this might have been a good sign to think about it more closely before beginning, because if I’d looked it up I would have discovered that Eddings made a list of every cliché that exists in fantasy literature and decided to make a story that incorporated all of them.  So if someone sets out to write a highly derivative and unoriginal work, is the work then a failure for being highly derivative and unoriginal?  Or is it a success?  I’ll leave that one up to the Zen masters and declare that either way I found it super annoying and I probably should have stopped reading it, with only increasing disbelief and sheer-bloody mindedness getting me to the end.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the story deals with Garion, who is (of course) a farm boy of approximately fifteen being raised by his aunt in the middle of a realm which is known for solid, practical sorts.  You know what, let’s just do some bullet points:
  • Garion has a birthmark which means that he’s descended from the line of the Rivan King, which makes him royalty and also means he’s the only one that can touch the Orb, a magical artifact which in the hands of the Dark God Torak can unmake the world; 
  •  Garion’s aunt turns out to be his many-greats aunt and an immortal sorceress, and the old storyteller turns out to be his many-greats grandfather and an immortal sorcerer.  Garion turns out to have powerful sorcerous powers of his own;
  •  There’s a prophecy which states that Garion will defeat Torak;
  •  From the beginning at the farm this crew manages to accumulate a posse of various ethnicities and abilities from the kingdoms they pass through;
  •  Including a runaway princess about Garion’s age who constantly bickers with him.  She also has red hair, non-human heritage and a name spelled with unnecessary apostrophes;
  •  Despite being, up to this point, an illiterate laborer, Garion turns out to be a leader of men, master sorcerer, potent warrior, and manages to engage a god in single combat before settling down with the princess and restoring peace to the land.

Oh, and did I mention that the prophecy is an actual character that can speak to Garion and tell him what he ought to do next?  Just in case you were wondering if there was any suspense, or anything.

As far as the writing goes, it’s basically reasonable journeyman prose, no particular issues there.  It’s all the metatextual issues that annoy me so much; in that Eddings basically seems to know better but takes the clichéd way out anyway.  I could probably make a pretty substantial list of the things that irritate me in this book.  In fact, let me do that:

  •  This fictional world is composed of a bunch of racially and culturally homogenous kingdoms.  As soon as you meet anyone you’ll be able to tell their personality at one glance.  Naturally all the good characters are white, even the nomadic horse-people culture, and believe in freedom, justice, truth, etc. although they live in feudalistic kingdoms.  The bad guys are Asiatic with heavy facial scars, exist in vast hordes, and are uniformly committed to doing evil on behalf of their human-sacrificing priesthood caste.  (For variety, there’s also a tribe of dark-skinned devil worshipers.)  This is just flat-out lazy and unforgivable.  Tolkien himself felt bad about making the Orcs uniformly evil later in life – he was a devout Catholic and after some reflection realized that by giving them some sort of moral agency would have been more appropriate.  There’s no excuse for doing it in the 1980s.  Which leads me to . . .
  •  The excessive protagonist-centered morality.  Garion and crew do quite a few morally dubious things throughout this series, including but not limited to:  sacking cities, burning people alive, entombing people alive, putting magical compulsions on people, theft, and changing people into animals.  In addition they essentially commit a few acts of out and out murder as distinct from combat.  Some of the characters even notice that their behavior isn’t necessarily all that different from that of the erstwhile bad guys.  And on that subject . . .
  •  Eddings’ characterization is in some ways way too good for this stupid plot.  He goes to considerable effort to make the princess a whiny, entitled brat, which is probably a reasonable enough way for such a person to be portrayed, but then he forgets to throw in the good parts.  She’s a main character so naturally we’ll root for her to fall in love with the hero, right?  If I were told I’d have to marry her I’d saw my own limbs off . . .
  •  Garion is a total slave to prophecies and he does whatever it, his grandfather or his aunt tell him he has to do.  He’ll travel where told, fight when told, get engaged to the princess, go on ludicrously dangerous quests, etc.  Despite being portrayed as a super-powerful sorcerer he never had any sort of training to use his powers; despite the reader being told that he is highly intelligent he is illiterate until about halfway through the series.  (His aunt didn’t teach him because she didn’t want him to accidentally read prophecies and get a big head (!) but he nonetheless had apparently no intellectual curiosity of any kind prior to the events of these novels.)
  •  Garion is an instant expert in fields where required, such as combat, sorcery, planning, prophetic interpretation, etc.  One of his very first acts of sorcery is to do something that Belgarath, his seven-thousand year old great-whatever grandfather, believes is fatal to even attempt.  He also masters swordplay during about a six month period where he doesn’t have any time to practice, from what we can tell.
  •  All of his companions are the very best in the world at whatever their stereotypical skill is, which means in battle they take on ridiculous numbers of foes and are in no particular danger, even trading supposed witticisms as they invariably prevail.  At other times they inexplicably skulk and hide from enemies that shouldn’t be that much of a threat, often spending long stretches cowering, which doesn't make a lot of sense considering that they win every fight they do have without any difficulty.  They also have vastly erratic abilities to detect the bad guys; sometimes they can detect them with their special abilities from miles away, other times they get inexplicably ambushed (such as inside fortresses and other places you wouldn’t expect hostile characters to even be able to enter at all).
In addition to all this, there are a couple of scenes that show a bunch of starving serfs living in squalor, and who later join up with Garion’s army simply to have a meal.  Yet at the end there’s no indication given that any of the factors which led to these poor bastards being in that state have really changed, and I guess we’re just supposed to forget about all the poverty and injustice as Garion gets to go back to his kingdom and . . . they return to their miserable shantytown and pay oppressive taxes to their overlords?  I guess?  I mean, this isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire or anything but it’s bad form to bring up this sort of awareness of why feudalism is so terrible and then ignore it.  This strikes me as even worse than just not mentioning it at all.  It’s the same with some of the aftermath of battles that the good guys are responsible for.

Everyone also gets married at the end and has lots of kids, whether they’ve shown any inclination for that sort of life and without regard to whether it really makes any sense given what we’ve been told about them or whether their partner is really a suitable match.

I could go on, but frankly I think that’s got it sufficiently covered.  I had the good luck to read Lloyd Alexander and Tolkien first, which has heavily biased what sort of fantasy literature I can tolerate.  I might have liked this more when I was a very young teen, but I’m not 100% sure about that, and anyway I don’t think this is intended to be a YA novel.  There’s apparently a sequel to this series where they do it all over again, but I think I’ll be skipping that one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts about Netflix

There’s been a lot of ink of both the virtual and electronic sorts spilled over Netflix’s somewhat bizarre decision to split itself into two entities, especially after the massive negative feedback that they got after a recent price increase.

I’m a Netflix user from way back.  I set up my account for the first time in 2004 and I’ve been a user more often than not since then, although I have suspended my account on a couple of occasions when I wasn’t using it all that much.  Although ever since they’ve had the ability to instant stream I’ve never really been tempted to cancel service, it’s just too convenient to fire it up.

So the general consensus appears to be that Netflix always considered the future of its business to be in instant streaming rather than the physical mailing of DVDs.  As a technophile I can appreciate this idea, but in the real world as we currently live in it I think they’re making an awful mistake.  Nonetheless, they may not have much of a choice.  At this point there’s the technological ability to easily digitize every single movie and TV show ever made and stream it on demand.  It’s not practically possible for a couple of reasons, though.

First, there’s not really a good regime yet for what we’re going to do in the digital economy, and the way things are looking it appears that most of us plebians will be screwed.  Economics 101 tells us that in a perfect competition in a free market, marginal profit will be at the point of marginal cost, meaning that the profit you make from each additional item is essentially equal to what it costs to make the additional item.  But this sort of economics doesn’t really address the situation that we have now in electronic media, where all the cost of making a movie or television show comes up front and the marginal cost is essentially zero (technically you’ve got to pay for the electricity and storage media, but for all intents and purposes it doesn’t cost anything extra.)  Instead we have the copyright regime, where movie studios and other copyright holders get monopoly power over their products and can engage in rent seeking behavior.

Second, there’s the Internet companies, who in some cases overlap the copyright holders, who aren’t content to simply be common carriers and want a piece of the action too.  This conflict has been spilling out for some time and although we still officially have an open Internet, it may be only a matter of time before some of the providers start trying to charge extra for moving certain bits.  We’re already starting to see usage caps and our service isn’t anywhere near the standard that you can get in other first-world countries – more rent seeking.

So here we have Netflix, which doesn’t own the product that it’s providing and doesn’t own the delivery system that gets it where it’s going.  What they do have is name recognition and ease of use, although frankly their menu system is pretty bad and their selection isn’t all that great either.  Their renewal with Starz fell through because Starz wanted more money, which is going to cost them a significant portion of their library of new releases.  They’re starting to get grief from the ISPs because of the bandwidth that they are using.  So really their decision to spin off their two divisions is a little inexplicable to me.  Since they’ve got the subscriber base, they can use that as leverage to their content deals.  Without their physical subscriber base, they’re in the position of having to outbid companies with lots more cash, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, while losing a lot of what makes them a market leader.  I don’t see how they’re going to win that fight.

Common wisdom also suggests that they intend to sell or otherwise dispose of the DVD by mail business.  While I’m sure that this is a pretty capital intensive business requiring most of their actual employees and having a lot of infrastructure, this seems to me to be a solid business model.  Streaming can’t compare (yet) to the quality that you get from a Blu-Ray or even a DVD, which justifies the work that people put into their home theaters, and for that matter Netflix’s massive inventory gives them a leg up on anyone who wants to enter this business.  I think that rumors of the imminent demise of physical media are overstated, whether they’re putting optical drives in the new Macs or not.  There’s simply too much of a user base and it still offers tangible advantages over streaming.

So has Netflix managed to shoot itself in the foot?  I don’t know, I guess time will tell.  If the studios manage to force it out of business, though, then they may have just shot themselves higher up, such as in the groin or stomach.  It’s clear that each of the providers wants its pound of flesh, but if their demands make it unprofitable to stream or simply make streaming the less attractive option (either by selection or by price) then it’s not going to take off, no matter what technological projections are made.

Anyway, I require a substantial number of Sesame Street episodes available on demand plus a reasonable selection of Asian action movies, so I guess I’ll be keeping both of these services for the moment.  More price hikes or a change in circumstances may make me change my mind, though, and if it’s one thing that a business doesn’t want its customers doing, it’s actually thinking about the service.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Donald E. Westlake, who died at the end of 2008, was a ridiculously prolific writer in many genres under several pseudonyms.  He’s not really that easy to characterize, but under his own name he wrote a large number of light comedy criminal caper novels (as well as other things).  Under his pen name of Richard Stark, he wrote more dark crime stories, often featuring the character of Parker.  I’d been meaning to read these for years and finally got around to reading The Hunter, which is not only famous in its own right but has been filmed multiple times (actors playing characters based on Parker include Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson, Jim Brown, and Chow Yun-fat – clearly this has some cross cultural appeal).

Anyway, while organizing my thoughts for this post I realized what it was about this book that seems so familiar, and I decided that this is basically the inverse of a private detective novel.  Although I’m a fan of that genre, I used to find it very vexing that these PIs had such a huge chip on their shoulders at all times.  They’d certainly be within their rights to sass and threaten crooked cops, hoodlums, lowlifes and the like, but often you’ll find one of the heroes of such a novel antagonizing people who probably could help them or at least aren’t actively out to do them any harm.  Phillip Marlowe is especially bad about this, to the point where he could have probably solved some of his cases a lot faster if he was nicer to people.  To an extent I still feel like this is the case, but having read some of Chandler’s essays on the subject, I’m more sympathetic to the idea that a typical private eye character has a Code, which he never deviates from.  In Marlowe’s case, he very roughly feels that someone who has a certain amount of money or power must have gotten it by screwing over somebody, even if it’s not him, and therefore he will never give such a person the satisfaction of showing them respect.

Parker is a criminal who has a Code.  He’s not a petty criminal and he’s not a joiner, he’s strictly freelance.  He doesn’t have much of an inner life or emotions of any kind, simply pride in a job well done.  Parker spends his life in nice hotels, spreading his money among hotel safes, and when he gets low on cash he conducts a crime to get more, something he does maybe once or twice a year.  When he does a job he takes extra care in planning, if he brings in confederates it’s only people that he can trust, and he takes care not to work with the same people too often.  He’s super paranoid about his identity, to the point that everyone only knows him as “Parker”, with no other name, and even that is heavily implied not to be the name he was born with anyway.  His Code requires that he keep a low profile, complete the job, and leave no loose ends.  He doesn’t care a single thing about any other person besides himself and he’ll take anything he wants.

It’s a little unusual that such a person has a wife, but he does, and she’s described as the only person that he’s ever felt love for.  Or hate, when one of his partners double crosses him after a job and forces her to shoot him as he steals all the money from their hijacking job and then burns down the house that Parker is in.  This is how he ends up on a prison farm on a vagrancy charge, and having that loose end is why he’s in such a hurry to get off it.

At this point it would be simple to have sympathy for Parker, but I don’t think that’s what Westlake has in mind.  You can admire his competence and his single-mindedness, but he’s not really an admirable guy in any way.  For instance, Parker thought that the man who double-crossed him was flaky and so he was planning on killing him and taking his share of the loot already except that he got beaten to the punch (it wasn’t self defense on the part of Resnick, the betrayer, since Resnick didn’t know that Parker planned to do it, they each conceived their crosses separately).  And the job that they’d just completed was a hijacking where they’d killed about twenty guys.  Also in his hurry to get off the prison farm and get his revenge on the people who have wronged him he ends up murdering a prison guard just to shave two months off his sentence.  Then during his revenge he ends up killing a couple of innocent bystanders and doesn’t appear to lose a lot of sleep over it, although he does get irritated that one had the poor manners to die on him.  Still, he’s got style and he doesn’t apologize for any of his actions, which makes spending time with him pretty interesting.  You certainly wouldn’t want to run across him if you had anything he wanted, though.

Another interesting point is that the revenge part isn’t actually all that hard.  Parker’s a huge man, both mentally and physically strong, and he’s perfectly capable of killing with his bare hands, whereas Resnick is kind of a doofus.  He tries to lay low for a while, but once Parker finds him it’s really not much of a fight.  In fact it’s so disappointing that Parker decides to make more of a challenge for himself.  You see, the reason that Resnick stole the entire score in the first place was because he owed a debt to an organized crime syndicate.  Parker approaches the syndicate and explains that $45,000 of the money that Resnick paid to them didn’t actually belong to Resnick, and he would like it back.  (This money has been indexed for inflation in some of the film adaptations.)  The syndicate doesn’t really have a beef with him about his problems with Resnick, but they tell Parker that they consider this a personal debt of Resnick’s and they’re not going to pay it.  The syndicate is portrayed as a very 1960s corporate entity; you could easily see Robert MacNamara running it and they are basically MBAs, not street thugs.  As far as it goes they are pretty reasonable and tell him that they’d honor reasonable corporate debts, but that this isn’t one.  Parker does more than ask, and pretty soon the syndicate tells him that he can have the stupid forty-five grand – oh, and now he’s marked for death.

Originally Westlake planned for this novel to end with Parker’s capture by the police, and although that subplot is still in there and provides a pretty funny ending, Parker actually ends up escaping to see another day.  As it happens Westlake’s editor liked this book so much that he offered a deal to publish more books featuring Parker if Westlake would change the ending.  Apparently, there are over twenty of them, some of which are very well regarded.

Westlake has a very powerful and lean prose style and it’s probably at its peak here.  I will say that it’s obviously a product of its era, but Parker is sort of an anachronism even there.  I’m not sure how he adapted to being in more of a modern era (if in fact he did).  Some of the crimes that Parker commits are obviously impractical in this era of computer databases and cell phones.  It’s pretty amusing how it’s so hard for the organized crime folks to get hold of each other – they’ve got to make a couple of calls to figure out where the person they’re looking for is staying, then page them and wait a half hour for them to call back, and so on.  Many of the other references are equally dated.

And yet it’s very funny to watch Parker put the screws to so many people to get back $45,000 that he got from an armed robbery.  Because once Parker’s stolen your money fair and square it’s Parker’s money.  It’s the Code.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

If you obtained Holden Carver’s personnel file from the shadowy government agency where he used to work, it would tell you that he’d gone rogue while on assignment, killing his teammates and stealing the artifact they were supposed to retrieve.  It would also tell you that he dropped off the grid for a while and later resurfaced as an operative in a super-villain organization, where he’s been rapidly rising up the ranks and performing various terrorist attacks all over the world.  What the file wouldn’t tell you is that he did all this under orders to infiltrate this organization, and that’s because the man who ordered Carver to do it never wrote it down and is currently in a coma.  No one else knows that Carver is actually a double agent (well, supposed to be a double agent) and he’s living a life of quiet desperation, terrified of getting discovered but also wondering how he can still claim to be one of the good guys after everything he’s forced to do to keep his cover.

Welcome to Sleeper, a 24 issue comic series which consisted of two 12-issue runs from 2003-2005.  I re-read it after getting it back from a friend who I’d loaned it to; it’s also available in trade paperback form and is worth looking for if you’re into this sort of thing.  I really wish that HBO or some premium cable channel would buy the rights and do a miniseries out of it, as it’s got everything that they’re looking for today: graphic violence, moral ambiguity, strong characterization, lots of gratuitous nudity, and so on.  It's got very solid writing by Brubaker, and Phillips' art style lends itself very well to the gritty and seedy nature of the story.

This is essentially a noir story told in a superhero world, full of double crossing, intrigue, and overwrought voice-overs.  Carver narrates and gives flashbacks where applicable as he explains his various predicaments, although he keeps some of his cards close to the vest.  He was exposed to an alien artifact which has made him essentially indestructible; he quickly regenerates from bodily injury, he’s impervious to pain, and he’s basically invulnerable to psychic probes or manipulation.  It’s that last trait that inspired the choice to send him into the evil organization, since it’s run by an individual named Tao who has powerful but unspecified mental skills.  Tao’s henchmen all have cybernetic enhancements or super powers of their own.  In fact this provides a lot of the humor of the series, as the various operatives trade origin stories out of boredom, and Brubaker seems to go out of his way to make some of the powers as ludicrous as possible.

Fittingly for a noir series, though, it’s pretty damn dark.  Most of the first season deals with Carver’s attempts to avoid discovery as a mole while escaping the organization, if he can.  Since everyone on the nominal good side thinks he’s a traitor, they won’t trust him, and furthermore Tao’s got moles on the other side too.  In the very first issue Tao calls Carter into his office to tell him there’s a mole and he thinks he knows who it is – a man who goes by the name of the Nihilist.  Carver’s ordered to find out if the Nihilist is betraying the organization and, if so, to kill him – and, if not, to let Tao know so they can continue searching for the mole.  This obviously puts Carver in something of an ethical bind, especially when he manages to discover that the Nihilist actually is working for the good guys.  Nonetheless, Carver ends up killing the guy anyway, which is the point when I realized that this series was something unique.  Most heroes would have tried to warn off the Nihilist, but Carver realizes that his cover is best maintained that way and so he just goes with it.  (Also, many writers would have made it self-defense so that Carver could get the practical benefits without all the moral difficulties, but here Carver just straight up murders the poor bastard.)

Most of the first 12 issues involves putting the screws to Carver as he attempts to make contact with various people who may be able to get him out, and his personal situation gets worse and worse.  It seems like the world really has it out for him, and Brubaker takes the advice of Raymond Chandler - if you've backed your character into a corner and don't know what to do next, have someone burst in with a gun.  Or a particle blaster, weaponized black hole, flying car, or whatever.

This is a good point to stop reading if you intend to read the series and don’t want to know some surprises.  Toward the end of the first series, Carver ends up with his cover blown and tries to escape from both sides, only to be recaptured by Tao, who reveals that he knew all along that Carver was a double agent and was really just screwing around with him.  Nonetheless, Tao states that he considers actions to be more important than motivations, and that Carver really is great at his job – and offers him the chance to come back to work (or die, of course, Tao is evil after all).  Holden, out of options, accepts.  Elsewhere, John Lynch, Carver’s old handler, conveniently wakes up from his coma and heads back to his own job.

The second series deals with the aftermath of all these events as Tao and Lynch try to manipulate Carver to their own ends, and Carver tries to accomplish his own goals while fighting the knowledge that he’s expendable once one of the two has gotten enough from him.  These two are strategic geniuses and Carver’s kind of a lunkhead with a good survival sense, which makes him wonder if he stands a chance, but also means that he stands a good chance of being underestimated while they focus on each other.

All this opens up a bunch of great philosophical dilemmas.  Carver notes on several occasions that the nature of his work doesn’t really change that much no matter what name is on his business card.  He was already involved in assassinations, espionage, and other dirty tricks when he was working for the “good guys”.  So he has to acknowledge Tao’s point, that he can’t really justify his actions on the grounds that he has good intentions since the same effects happen anyway.  Nonetheless, the writing doesn’t skirt over the fact that Tao is really just engaging in sophistry here and just because he has a good point doesn't make him correct.  For that matter Lynch's concept that the ends justify the means doesn't come out that well either.

The supporting cast is also great.  Most of the folks that work for the evil organization aren’t bad people necessarily.  Carver’s friend Genocide Jones is actually a pretty decent guy aside from his occupation, and Carver's love interest Miss Misery has to commit evil acts for the sake of her health (long story).  But the organization also contains people like Steeleye (a telepathic pedophile), Peter Grimm (who really is bad), and Tao himself, who, rhetoric aside, is a complete monster.  Some of the people who work for Lynch are no great shakes themselves.

On the whole I thought that the first half is stronger than the second half, since it tends to straight-up action once Carver’s cover is blown.  Still, there’s a lot of good intrigue as Carver manages to outwit and outlast all the powerful and intelligent forces gunning for him, and it builds to a very powerful conclusion.  It’s not necessarily a happy ending for anyone, but some sort of justice does get done and Carver never really expected to get out unscathed.  It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Moving farther down my book queue we have Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds.  Reynolds has a serious science pedigree; he’s a Ph.D. research astronomer who used to work at the European Space Agency, until quitting in 2004 to become a full-time writer.  Since that time he’s been churning out hard SF at a humbling rate.  I’ve got mixed feelings about Reynolds, partially because I’ve read his work out of order and partly for reasons I’ll go into in more detail later.  This is actually his first novel, so I probably should have started here first.

Revelation Space introduces a fictional universe which he uses throughout several of his other novels and short stories.  In addition to two direct sequels, there’s also Chasm City, which takes place at roughly the same time as Revelation Space, and The Prefect, which takes place some time before.  Both of those books are basically stand alones, but they incorporate the domed cities and orbital habitats located on and around the planet Yellowstone in the Epsilon Eridani system.  I’ve actually read both of these other books, so I had a pretty good idea of what was going on already.  In addition to this shared universe, Reynolds has written several other novels outside this milieu, including House of Suns, which I really liked.

In fact, let me pour praise on House of Suns.  It’s a space opera in fine style, taking place over countless millennia and possessing a great sense of wonder.  (A constant throughout Reynolds’ books is that he’ll include stuff that is implausible such as deflector shields or nucleonic computronium but nothing known to be impossible or that he believes to be impossible, such as teleporters or faster than light travel.  We’re all prisoners of relativity and entropy is the enemy, as always.)  At one point one of the main characters’ loves is kidnapped by evil robots and he has to chase after her for tens of thousands of years, which is just a fraction of the time that he’s spent exploring the galaxy.  But what makes it really classy is that the evil robots actually have a legitimate beef and possibly even with him, but he can’t know for sure, since the relevant portions of his brain may have been erased.  That’s some good characterization and existential dilemmas there.

In contrast, I basically admired Chasm City but didn’t really like it all that much.  One of the characters in that book is introduced as a child on a generation ship playing with a friend of his, and so you think that this relationship may prove important throughout their lives.  Only in this case he manages to work his way up to captain by well-timed industrial accidents and occasionally framing people up on false charges and executing them, then kidnapping and murdering his childhood friend.  And killing a dolphin and some aliens.  Then he kills a bunch of other people and manages to start a planetary war, which he profits from by selling weapons to both sides.  Not an admirable person, in short.  I’ve got no particular problem reading works that contain unsympathetic protagonists, but it has to be handled well, which in this case it wasn’t.  If you’re going to have a character who is an amoral psychopath for no apparent reason, it’s hard for them to be a sympathetic character later on unless there’s some fairly compelling justification for it, and no, I don’t buy “striving to be a better person” as compelling justification.  Why has the character decided to make this attempt, and if it was a sudden epiphany why not consider suicide out of remorse?  He certainly didn’t seem to have much problem committing a bunch of other atrocities in the past, so what happened to change his mind?

Anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent because the title here says Revelation Space, so let’s talk about it specifically. 

One of the themes of the Revelation Space universe is the question of the Fermi paradox.  This paradox questions why, given the massive amount of real estate in the universe, is extraterrestrial intelligence not observed everywhere.  Various theories have been expounded to resolve this apparent contradiction but in this book there’s a pretty simple answer for it:  spacefaring civilizations tend to get wiped out by pretty dramatic means.  Dan Sylveste is an archeologist on the planet Resurgam trying to solve the mystery of what eliminated the native civilization of that planet and whether it was intentional.  The other two main characters are Ana Khouri, an assassin hired to kill Sylveste, and Ilia Volyova, an officer on the huge ship Nostalgia for Infinity, who is looking to find Sylveste because she believes he may have the expertise to help the ship’s captain, who is suffering from a nanotechnological plague.  This plague (the “Melding Plague”) is both pretty cool and central to a lot of events of this fictional universe, since it basically collapsed the most advanced human civilization in existence at the time and is appropriately well-described in all its horribleness.  The captain at this point is a hunk of infected biomass that is contained in a cryogenic freezer and can be communicated with by slightly thawing his brain, but doing so causes what’s left of his body to writhe and continue mutating.

That’s pretty neat, and actually the whole universe is that well described.  The locations are real places and it takes a while to get between them, meaning that if you try to find someone in the Epsilon Eridani system they might not still be there when you arrive, having left for Delta Pavonis.  And for that matter it might be hard to find them even if they are there, because it’s big.  So this is all good stuff.  For that matter the Nostalgia for Infinity is exquisitely described and may very well be my favorite character in the whole novel, although it doesn’t have anything to say.  That may be because the human characters have very ponderous conversations of fairly clunky dialogue that tends to go on at some length, and while they aren’t quite as unpleasant as the aforementioned man from Chasm City, they are all pretty unlikable.  Sylveste is introduced putting his archeological team in danger and he doesn’t really have many redeeming characteristics.  Maybe it’s churlish for me to have hoped that the assassin would actually be successful in killing him.

Most of this novel is devoted to building up a mystery, but it’s really not all that mysterious.  Obviously these spacefaring races don’t just go out and commit suicide, which means that we’re just trying to figure out who destroys them and why they feel like that is a good idea.  Over the course of this somewhat lengthy story we mostly find out, but the eventual reveal didn’t excite me, although I have to admit that their mode of operating is pretty interesting – they’re too lazy to go out looking for trouble so they really behave more like anglerfish, dangling interesting bait in unusual places and waiting for someone to come along and explore it.  Still, I’m a little leery of the idea that every work has to be a trilogy or a universe these days.  We don’t even get to the conflict between humans and these malevolent aliens until the next book, so all the setup is a little frustrating.  And, given his history, the characters tend to have upperclassman-level discussions of cutting edge cosmology, so if you’re not up on the latest theories on neutron star formation or theoretical spaceship drives then I’d suggest keeping Wikipedia handy.

For a first novel this is a good achievement, but Reynolds has improved considerably in his later works and this one suffers accordingly.  I ended up liking it better than Chasm City anyway, but not nearly as well as all the other Reynolds stuff I’ve read.  In fact I may go read House of Suns again.