Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: "Redemption Ark" by Alastair Reynolds

(Redemption Ark is the second book in a series. I reviewed Revelation Space, the first book , here.) 


Humanity has attracted the attention of the Inhibitors: the alien machines designed to eradicate intelligent life throughout the galaxy. Tireless, relentless, unstoppable, the Inhibitors cannot be outwitted or outfought. Maybe, just maybe, they can be outrun.

Ana Khouri races against the clock to evacuate the planet Resurgam. One species has already been hunted to extinction there by the Inhibitors, and if she fails, humans will be next. Meanwhile, Triumvir Ilia Volyova negotiates with her former captain--a ghostly presence haunting his own ship--for the use of the cache weapons to protect Resurgam.

But the Conjoiners who created the cache weapons are coming to collect them. The artificially enlightened subspecies are turning their backs on baseline humanity, leaving them for the Inhibitors while the Conjoiners flee the galaxy. The Conjoiner hero Nevil Clavain, who was human himself many centuries ago, suffers a crisis of conscience and defects to warn humanity of the danger. Now he must beat his own people to the cache weapons--if Ilia and the Captain will agree to turn them over. When all of human civilization is awaiting execution, there are no right answers, and not enough time.
  2 out of 5 stars
The middle of a trilogy is either the weakest link or the jolt of energy that kicks the story up to the next level. Not everything can be an Empire Strikes Back. Sometimes, you wind up with a Pirates of the Carribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest.

Jack Sparrow and the Island of
Random Cannibals; Or, The Quality
Equivalent Of This Sequel.
Alastair Reynolds commits three major blunders in Redemption Ark, the second part of his epic Inhibitor Trilogy. One relates to narration, and the other two to pacing, my second favorite grump fodder. Let me break this down.

Simply put, Redemption Ark has too many narrators. In the first book, Revelation Space, Reynolds restricts himself to the viewpoints of three key individuals--Dan Sylveste, scientist; Ilia Volyova, spacer; and Ana Khouri, soldier. Despite the complex setting and the vagaries of spacetime, the plot is streamlined by clear narration. In contrast, this sequel is teeming with extraneous narrators, which serve to muddy the plot and delay the action.

In addition to Khouri and Volyova, we add Clavain, Skade, Felka, Galiana... Antoinette...  Xavier... Thorn... and Scorpio... and Lasher... and H... and Remontoire. Oh, and also the Inhibitor machine overseer. Maybe a third of these are crucial to the plot. The rest are echoes of viewpoints we already recieve, recycling information and regurgitating scenes the reader has already seen. Character development is scanty, so we form no emotional attachments to these many echoing voices. It makes it difficult to judge which narrative arc the book intends to follow.

Which leads me to the next point: pacing.

Dear readers, I realize that few of you care about pacing as much as I do. Most readers don't  consciously notice its role in a story. Nevertheless, pacing does affect everyone's reading experience. When The Storyteller ends too quickly, that feeling of dissatisfaction comes from bad pacing. When Harry and Hermione spend what feels like half the total pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a tent, reading newspaper articles instead of wizarding, that's bad pacing (and also boredom.)

Redemption Ark has terrible pacing. It's so bad that it kills the book.

Fve hundred pages in (out of a total 700), Reynolds has just finished setting up the plot. Slow setups are arguably excusable in a mystery novel. After building suspense through information-gathering, the last bit can go at a gallop: Catch that killer! Stop that train! In science fiction, however, those five hundred pages are dead weight. Those are five hundred pages of characters meeting... then separating and going back to their own lives, unaware of the plot. Five hundred pages of characters thinking about the plot... and setting it aside for another day.

At its heart, Redemption Ark has a straightforward structure, with two parallel challenges laid before the characters. The first: can Resurgam be evacuated before the Inhibitor machines destroy it? The second: will Clavain reach the cache weapons (in orbit around Resurgam) in time to use them against the Inhibitors, or will the villainous Skade get there first?

Yet hundreds of pages pass before the reader learns that evacuating Resurgam is even the goal. Clavain does not begin to move toward Resurgam until page 450. What happens during the intervening pages is a mystery. I just finished reading it, dear reader, and I still can't tell you.

Five hundred total pages before the plot appears? Those are five hundred pages during which most readers would put down this apparently aimless book.

If that were not bad enough, Reynolds chooses--over and over again--the wrong scenes to skip.

"We destroyed the One Ring and saved Middle-Earth,
Mister Frodo! We'll tell you how it all went down
in three quick sentences."
Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien, writing The Return of the King, had not shown the hobbits' final trek up the slopes of Mt. Doom. Instead, the story jumps from the end of The Two Towers to everyone reunited, safe and victorious, back in Minas Tirith. "Oh, don't you remember? We climbed the slopes, and I carried you the last bit, and Gollum attacked us--you're missing a finger now, by the way--and he fell into the fire, destroying the Ring. Then we almost died in the eruption of the volcano, but the Eagles came and rescued us. Also, everyone else was in a major battle, and Aragorn is the king of Gondor. We can go home now." As a reader, you would feel cheated of the very climactic moment you have been waiting for all this time.

Yet that is what Reynolds does. He drags out the setup so long that the plot is stretched out of all recognition, then... skips right over the resolution, and summarizes it later. It's deeply frustrating. The reader never gets the satisfaction of seeing the confrontation between Skade and Clavain. Ilia's redemption for her war crimes gets a sentence in passing. Khouri's return to the heart of Hades--the thing she was most frightened of doing--is referenced only as an afterthought.

The great pity is that Redemption Ark does tell a good story. It just isn't told well. I still enjoy the overall premise and plot of the Inhibitor Trilogy, but it's far more interesting as a memory than as a reading experience. Readers who are interested in this space epic, please take my advice and brew yourselves a hearty pot of coffee before diving into this one.

Complexity of Writing: 5/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: fail?
Diverse Castpass
Content Warning: violent deaths, sexual assault, existential horror.

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