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Book Review: Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

One-line summary: A hard SF space opera about ancient astronauts and infected spaceships.

Revelation Space

Gollancz, 2000, 560 pages


Nine hundred thousand years ago, something annihilated the Amarantin civilization just as it was on the verge of discovering space flight. Now one scientist, Dan Sylveste, will stop at nothing to solve the Amarantin riddle before ancient history repeats itself.

With no other resources at his disposal, Sylveste forges a dangerous alliance with the cyborg crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity. But as he closes in on the secret, a killer closes in on him because the Amarantin were destroyed for a reason. And if that reason is uncovered, the universe - and reality itself - could be irrevocably altered.



This is my second Alastair Reynolds novel. It's the first in the Revelation Space series, but it's a stand-alone novel. The universe and characters are very similar to the first Reynolds novel I read, House of Suns. Reynolds writes large-scale sci-fi, with million-year-old civilizations, post-humans who are genetically and cybernetically modified sometimes to the point of barely being human, and slower-than-light travel in kilometers-long starships. House of Suns was a story told with a sweeping scope on which the fate of galaxies literally hinged, and Revelation Space is nearly as ambitious. However, it is an earlier novel, and it shows, as I found that I enjoyed Revelation Space somewhat less than House of Suns.

Revelation Space takes place in the 25th century. Humanity has settled the stars, but encountered no sentient alien life. There is no FTL technology, so people travel in "lighthuggers"; starships that travel at just below the speed of light on decades-long circuits of habitable worlds. Those who still travel are known as "ultras"; they have modified themselves with advanced technology to adapt to living in space, and spend most of their time between star systems in suspended animation. For the most part, they are interstellar traders, but not averse to pushing around a backwater low-tech colony world when they can get away with it.

There are three main POV characters. Dan Sylveste is an archeologist on the planet Resurgam. As the book opens, he is studying the secrets of the ancient Amarantin civilization, which died long before humans left Earth. They were apparently wiped out by a stellar flare or similar disaster -- a disaster that Sylveste believes the Amarantin somehow caused, despite all evidence pointing to their never having progressed very far technologically.

The second POV character is Ana Khouri, who when the book opens is in Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone. The rich of Chasm City have extremely long lives and live in idle decadence, and to fend off ennui, they play a game in which they hire assassins to try to kill them. Khouri is one of these professional assassins, who is hired by a mysterious "Mademoiselle" who wants her to kill someone else.

The third POV character is Ilia Volyova, an ultra aboard the starship Nostalgia for Infinity. She is one of the three-person triumvir that is in command of the ship due to the incapacity of their captain, who has been infected by the Melding Plague, which is a sort of combination cellular and nano-virus.

The way in which these three characters all come together is a long, involved, complex story arc, and it's both clever and layered, making Revelation Space very intelligently-written sci-fi, and with Reynolds's prose, which is dramatic and atmospheric in most of the right places, I would almost call this "literary" if the payoff and the characterization were stronger.

Alas, while Reynolds really appeals to some people, he did not quite do it for me. For every chapter that was tense and spooky and dangerous -- the characters' movements in the rapidly-hostile environment of the Nostalgia for Infinity, and the dark transformations that ship underwent, were very reminiscent of such films as Event Horizon, Sunshine, and Alien, and the Gigeresque transformation of the captain fit the theme perfectly -- there were chapters that were full of tedious techy-tech-techno-tech, exposition about the history of the galaxy, or pointless bickering between the characters. Also, I am one of those people who likes to have a sympathetic character or two, preferably with a bit of development over the course of the novel. Khouri, the reluctant assassin, is the most sympathetic. Sylveste is just an arrogant bastard and Volyova is practically amoral. While none of them are really evil, none of them are particularly likeable, nor do any of them change over the course of the book. So after the interesting set-up and character sketches we get in the beginning, they simply occupy roles, usually adversarial.

The denouement is epic and meant to invoke shock and awe, and it does -- but it would be a lot more awesome if it weren't preceded by a couple chapters full of infodumps. Overall, this is definitely a plot-driven novel, not a character-driven one, so it's easy to see why Reynolds is so popular with the hardcore SF nerds. I think most sci-fi fans will enjoy this book, and I liked it, I just didn't love it.

What other reviewers say



(I choose positive and negative excerpts that I substantially agree with, even if I don't agree with the rating.)

Excerpts from 5-star reviews:



  • His writing is definitely on par with that of Dan Simmons--it's just colder. The story demands it. Revelation Space is a lonely, dark, and chilling book. The characters are fully developed and complicated people, but the tone of the book is such that most of them have some kind of a defensive wall around themselves.

  • This is a dark, ambitious, and eerie science fiction book .... The best scifi writing I've run into in a while. I love the solid prose, intricate plotting, and the interesting (and some very creepy) characters. The best characters are women, which is a rarity in this genre. This book evokes the basic emptiness of space and the melancholy of a universe when technology brings about a human existence where people actually experience the relativity of time and space.



Excerpts from 1-star reviews:




  • The only way I can characterize this book is by describing it as a movie. It read like watching a movie with fantastic production design, amazing effects, and incredible locations and costumes. The only problem is that there was simply no character development. You never really find yourself caring what happens to any of the main characters, at least I didn't.

  • First, the author weaves even a single chapter from chunks of multiple story lines separated by decades and light years, each chunk just a few pages long and with minimal cues which story we are in - e.g. you have to remember that the story of Ana Khouri is 28 (?) years earlier than the excavation that started the book, every few pages when he switches on you.



Also by Alastair Reynolds: My review of House of Suns.


Verdict: My overall assessment of Alastair Reynolds after two books is: great thematic science fiction, but he just hasn't won me over with his storytelling and characterization. Revelation Space is not bad, and if you like hard SF, epic space operas, and better yet, both together, then I'd recommend it, and I can understand why Reynolds is a favorite with some fans. He tells the kind of stories Asimov and Clarke did, with an updated 21st century viewpoint. But he also suffers from some of their deficiencies: too much science, not enough fiction, characters who are just there to carry the plot, and a style that will probably be dated and "old school" in another generation.
Tags: alastair reynolds, books, reviews, science fiction
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