Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: "Revelation Space" by Alastair Reynolds

The first book in the Inhibitor Trilogy
Humanity has entered interstellar space to find itself strangely alone. The galaxy is littered with life-supporting planets and the ruins of alien civilizations, but of extant peers--none.

Dan Sylveste is singleminded to the point of monomania in his pursuit to understand the extinction of the alien Amarantin. As he gathers evidence that the birdlike race achieved starflight before their demise, his research team mutinies. Meanwhile, the ghostly simulation of his dead father taunts Sylveste with the secrets he has hidden.

Aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, Triumvir Ilia Volyova has a quest of her own: to find a cure for the virus which slowly dissolves her Captain. The computer program containing the memories of Calvin Sylveste may have the answer. But a spectral entity lurking in the ship's weapons cache works against Volyova, driving her fellow crew members mad and twisting the ship to its own sinister purpose.

Ana Khouri, an assassin-for-sport on the planet Yellowstone, is blackmailed by the mysterious Mademoiselle into taking an illegal commission: to find and kill a man who has not paid to die. Haunted by the phantoms of her soldiering days, and the far more literal phantom of the Mademoiselle implanted in her brain, Khouri searches for her target--Sylveste.

Across the vast realms of space and time, the three converge on the planet Resurgam, where the Amarantin race died. And where, if they are not very careful, humanity will soon follow.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)
I first picked up Revelation Space from the same friend who owned Ship of Fools. Whereas I reread the latter purely for the purpose of panning it, I came back to this book--and to the others in the Inhibitor Trilogy, set in Alasdair Reynold's complex post-Earth universe--with eager anticipation.

(Dear reader, let me preemptively apologize for the pondeous wording of this review. After reading Revelation Space, I've needed a few days to get words like "configuration" and "facilitate" and "physiology" out of my system.)

The inspiration for the book's plot (although Reynolds takes his sweet, sweet time getting here) is the Fermi paradox. To butcher all of its nuances, the paradox asks why Earth has never been contacted by extraterrestrial life, given 1) the great size of the universe, 2) the number of planets therein which are theoretically capable of supporting life, and 3) the relatively short period of time it should take for interstellar technology to develop in a civilization, compared to the age of the universe.

And here I'll give you a spoiler for the book's second page: it's because something is preventing the development of spacefaring civilizations. Dun dun dun!
"What were they called?" she asked.

"The Inhibitors. For a very good reason, which will shortly become apparent."

And then he told her, and she knew. The knowledge crashed home, vast and impassive as a glacier, something she could never begin to forget. And she knew something else, which was, she supposed, the whole point of this exercise. She understood why Sylveste had to die.

And why--if it took the death of a planet to ensure his death--that was an entirely reasonable price to pay.
Fans of hard sci-fi may be already salivating at that premise, in which case, here's your recommendation--Revelation Space is a very clever book. But readers who like their fiction with a little swash and a bit of buckle may also find the book to their taste.
"You'll pay for this," he said. "I'lI swear it."
Which was when Khouri entered the bridge and began shooting.
Unfortunately, we are introduced to our narrators in order of reverse interest. The tedium of Dan "Info Dump" Sylveste's chapters is so wearying that I suspect many readers will put down the book before ever meeting Volyova, whose story is more standard deep-space fare (with a side of claustrophobia). The tension aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity is riveting: its crew members paranoid and murderous, their brief alliances dissolving as the Captain's condition worsens. Then there is Volyova's terrifying weapons cache. Is it even possible to possess such devastating power, and not employ it?

At last we come to Khouri, who is (IMHO) the heart of the book. Like the reader, she is new to Reynolds' universe. She is an ordinary human with a gun, a warm heart, and no patience for nonsense. She is a hunter with her leg caught in a trap, watching the predators circle. Where the other two narrators glide past mysteries, leaving the reader in the dark, Khouri confronts them head-on. If Sylveste the Walking Encyclopedia fails to engage the reader's interest, the simple humanity of Khouri's motivation--to rejoin her husband, separated from her by the quirks of space and time--will make up for his lack. 
Until that moment, Khouri had never really given much thought to the slowness of light. There was nothing in the universe that moved faster... but, as she now saw, it was glacial compared to the speed that would be needed to keep their love alive.

In one instant of cruel clarity, she understood that it was nothing less than the underlying structure of the universe, its physical laws, which had conspired to bring her to this moment of horror and loss. It would have been easier, infinitely easier, if she had known he was dead. Instead, there was this terrible gulf of separation, as much in time as in space. Her anger had become something sharp inside her, something that needed release if it was not going to kill her from within. 

Later that day, when the man came to offer her a job as a contract assassin, she found it surprisingly easy to accept.
Once it gets rolling, the book is a tremendously exciting read. Reynolds spins something of a ghost story out of some very hard sci-fi. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for all the puzzle pieces to click into place, hoping that someone will shoot "What Happens If I Push This Button" Sylveste before he dooms all of humankind. It's easy to overlook the fact that the entire plot could have been resolved if certain characters had shared their knowledge on crucial subjects. Narrative convenience bids them hold their tongues. But the way it all plays out, I can almost forgive that contrivance.

Dear reader, let me confess: I could never have written Revelation Space. It is an extraordinarily smart book, which juggles complex plots next to complex quirks of science in a way that I can make only tongue-in-cheek attempts to explain.

Sometimes that's more than the book itself does, though. If it has one major failing, it is that Reynolds' universe is too vast, too complex, and too richly populated. The author cannot give the reader enough information to understand it in a quick snapshot. Or else he could, but (and this is mere conjecture on my part) he wished to avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information, so he left many things unexplained. If that's the case, I applaud the instinct, but shake my head at the execution. There is a veritable mountain of plot elements a first-time reader has no way of grasping. It's far easier to reread than it is to read.

I had the advantage of having read some of Reynolds' short stories, each of which expounds upon a different facet of the Inhibitor universe. "The Great Wall of Mars" introduces the reader to Conjoiner technology, the Demarchists, and the implants which cause the "haunting" of many characters in Revelation Space, in addition to the Captain's eerie ailment. (It also centers on a trio of characters who feature in Redemption Ark, the second book in the Inhibitor trilogy.) "Turquoise Days" explains the Pattern Jugglers, the aquatic alien consciousness which Sylveste and the Captain of the Nostalgia for Infinity employ to rewrite their own brain structure. It describes the Ultranauts, the particular "sect" of spacefaring humanity to which Volyova belongs.

And just typing this out, I'm staggered by how much Reynolds does not explain in his own main book.
Galactic North contains an anthology
of  Reynold's short stories set in
the Inhibitor universe, which help
explain some of the plot points
in Revelation Space.

I wish you luck with this one, dear reader. You may wish to try out the short stories I mentioned before opening Revelation Space. They (along with others) are gathered in the anthology Galactic North.

The two books that directly follow this one, completing the Inhibitor Trilogy, are Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap (the title of that last one actually makes me think of Appalachia.) They're very grand titles for a grand-scale space epic. I suppose I could justify the heavy-handed Biblical implications if I wanted to; the overarching plot does contain an Edenic parallel. (There was a reason one tree was denied to man. The day he ate of its fruit, he began to die.)

On a side note, Revelation Space is one of the better genre books I've read as regards to the Bechdel test. It passes with flying colors without half trying. I was inordinately pleased to notice that Reynolds has unselfconsciously populated his book with as many female characters as male, assigned them equal roles of authority or plot significance, so that it was impossible for female characters to AVOID talking to one another.

One character--Pascale Dubois--has only the most perfunctory sketch of a personality, existing primarily to prompt other characters to explain things for the reader's benefit. I can't fault her too much for that, though, when our main man, Sylveste, is Exposition Made Flesh. (And it is oh, so frustrating to have Khouri or Volyova locked in some hair-raising emergency, only for the narrative to come to a screeching halt for Sylveste to yammer on for page after page about his own brilliance.)

I enjoyed Revelation Space on the second read as much as on the first. It improves with familiarity, but readers who can stomach a little sci-fi nattering and a slow start should enjoy the book and its sequels. I give it my recommendation.

Complexity of Writing: 5/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3.5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4.5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3.5/5
Mental Engagement: 5/5
Bechdel Test: yes
Diverse Cast: yes
Content Warning: violent deaths

1 comment:

  1. As a side note, This SMBC comic is pretty much the exact plot of "Revelation Space."