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.

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