Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review -- REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds likes two things: Chekov's gun and the Big Dumb Object, and he uses them prolifically throughout Revelation Space, his 560-page debut novel, published in 2000. Reynolds holds a PhD in Astronomy and Physics from St. Andrews, and worked for the European Space Agency until retiring in 2004 to pursue writing full-time. His depth of knowledge in astrophysics plays an enormous and defining role in his work.

One of the biggest issues with early science-fiction as a genre is the lack of hard science in conjunction with the fiction. There's always been a great deal of hand-waving and the futuristic equivalent of "wizards doing it" in regards to many of the realities of interstellar travel and communication. The best writers tackle concepts, but rarely ever incorporate actual science into their works.

In contrast, numerous science-fiction authors can, and often do, incorporate accurate science and technical know-how in their books, giving them a very authentic feel. However, these writers often fail to create dynamic, believable characters or meaningful stories.
This is where Reynolds sets himself apart. Reynolds never resorts to inventing hyperdrives or warp engines. He brings actual physics to bear on the realities of space-travel, colonization, and futuristic technology. And he not only creates an interesting story that sucks the reader in, but he creates deep, dynamic characters that feel alive. A decade after publishing the first novel set in his Revelation Space universe, he's developed a solid following and been signed to a 10-book contract in return for £1 million.

Revelation Space begins by jumping back and forth in time and space to the viewpoints of three different and seemingly unrelated characters--Dan Sylveste in 2551 on planet Resurgam (Sigma Draconis system), Ilia Volyova in 2540 on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity bound for Yellowstone (in the Epsilon Eridani system), and Ana Khouri in 2524 in Chasm City on Yellowstone. One is a xeno-archeologist, scholar, and ultra-wealthy socialite (Sylveste); one is an Ultra--a heavily modified human who lives on vast merchant-ships sailing between stars (Volyova); one is a former soldier turned assassin (Khouri). All of the characters seem to have nothing in common, and indeed, they are drastically separated by time and space. Khouri's story starts 26 years before Sylveste's and 16 before Volyova's.

Gradually, the timelines start to resolve, due to the vast distances of space and the passage of time in cryogenic sleep and at near-relativistic speeds. By midway through the book, all three timelines have merged into one. This is one of the factors that marks Revelation Space as good science fiction. The author should contemplate issues of technological advancement and the limitations of physical reality and their effect on the human experience. Reynolds meets the challenges of space-travel and time dilation head-on in this novel, and conquers.
That is just the beginning. Revelation Space is not a simple, straightforward novel. Reynolds, like Simmons, creates a universe in which he considers the problems of vast distances in space on travel and communication, meaning that planets are, for all intents and purposes, are heavily isolated from one another for years (sometimes even decades), leading to distinctive cultures, governments, and political issues arising on each world. Through groups like the ultras, he explores transhumanism through genetic modification and cybernetic implants. Nanotechnology is explored, as is the over-dependence on it (when nano-machine epidemics such as the Melding Plague are released, posing an enormous threat to anyone or anything possessing cybernetic or nanotechnology).

When it comes to extra-terrestrial life, Reynolds confronts the Fermi Paradox directly (indeed, the Paradox is actually the entire point of Revelation Space). He also explores the morality of cloning, artificial intelligence (he even invokes the Turing test), and the concept of immortality-via-uploading your psyche into a computer simulation.

What Reynolds also does incredibly well is the set-up and execution of plot-points. Like I mentioned at the beginning, Reynolds loves Chekov's gun, and sprinkles the item throughout his novel. What seemed to originally be interesting details can become very important later. As I progressed through the book, I started to get a feeling of completeness--as if Reynolds was using every single piece of his world constructively to further the plot.
The plot itself is well-written and executed, for the most part. Reynolds lays out characters and setting, then incorporates them into the rising action, and the action most certainly rises. Every development generates a suction-effect on the reader, as characters' pasts return to haunt them, puzzle-pieces are snapped-together, and more details about the setting and the overall mystery are revealed. The Big Dumb Object doesn't really come into play until later in the story, but when it does, it's pretty-much the focal point of all the mysteries that have been explored up until this point in the novel.

The characters, at first, are not really very likable. In fact, Sylveste and Volyova both come off as callous and willing to sacrifice others' lives or well-being in order to see their goals met. Only Khouri really seemed likable to me, at first. However, as the story progresses, I found myself starting to like the characters. Sylveste's callousness is driven by a need to prevent a possible future catastrophe. His keen intellect, his adaptability, and his determination actually turn him into an admirable character, although many of his traits develop into near-fatal flaws as the climax of the novel approaches (although he does, interestingly enough, have the last laugh). Volyova becomes something of a major screw-up, and it becomes apparent that she's outclassed by some of the more antagonistic characters on board her ship (such as Sajaki). However, she's quick-witted enough to overcome her mistakes and adapt, and when she and Khouri finally work together as equals, they make a very potent duo.

The weaknesses of the book are minor, but noticeable. First, the ending is far too tidy. It is admirable that Reynolds does his best to make sure all holes are tied shut, but some of the threads he uses come off as extremely weak. Too many questions are answered by the end of the novel, and I would have preferred many of them to have remained unresolved in order to keep a degree of mystery in the setting (such as the nature of the Shrouders). Not all questions are answered, mind you, leaving plenty of room for sequels, but some of the answered questions just disappointed me. I would have found different solutions to have been stronger and more satisfying than the ones that Reynolds offered.

Secondly, Reynolds' has a terrible tendency to remind the reader of certain plot points repeatedly. Granted, he usually does this from different characters' perspectives, but overall, it seems unnecessary. It's not as if he were really writing three separate novels (despite what I said earlier). The reader does not need to be reminded three times from three different perspectives.

Thirdly, Reynolds tries to weave character description into the story. While this is admirable, it comes off strange. We don't get a description of Volyova until we are two-thirds of the way through the novel. By this point, I've already pictured her (based on her name) as a Slavic Russian, but Reynolds seems to conceive her as a Russian of Asiatic origin. It's not debilitating, but just annoying, and a nice, simple description of her when she's first introduced would have been better.

Finally, there are parts where the story takes an incredible turn, and where your jaw drops right open and you can't helped but be stunned, but then Reynolds turns around and basically invalidates everything that just happened. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, it is really disappointing. For example, there was one part of the book where Sylveste is met with one of his antagonists, and he destroys the object that this antagonist needs. The destruction is something that costs Sylveste a great deal--he essentially wastes an incredibly valuable and irreplaceable asset, and says, "F--k you" while he does it. I had to re-read that section three times. The character displayed such assertiveness and, frankly, such balls that I was thrilled to see what would happen next. But it turns out that a copy is found and Sylveste's amazing action is completely robbed of its significance. Reynolds just took a moment of incredible character growth and invalidated it. This was highly disappointing to me.

As for prose, Reynolds' writing is not incredibly evocative or flowery. There are parts of the book when he does describe things wonderfully, creating impressions drawn from modern, cold, sterile imagery--fitting for a science-fiction novel. It's not as iconic as the first line of William Gibson's Neuromancer ("The sky was the color of a television set tuned to a dead channel").

Through the three characters, Reynolds starts off telling three separate novels. Sylveste's is an obsession with a long-extinct alien race that nearly costs him everything, Volyova fights to survive being stalked by a madman on her ship while the rest of the crew sleeps in cryogenic fugue, and Khouri finds herself forcibly recruited by a mysterious benefactor and ends up involved in a plot that is far, far above her understanding. That Reynolds can write in three different moods, then fuse the three threads into one thread is a pretty ringing endorsement for his ability as a writer. That he can do it while writing a mystery story about the Fermi paradox, artificial intelligence, and first contact (of a sort) full of exciting plot-twists and exploring/incorporating a dozen different science-fiction themes is a testament to his skill as a writer and the amazing breadth and depth of knowledge with which he infuses his story.

There's a lot more to say about the story, but I'm trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Any deeper analysis of style or plotting will require me to give much of it away, although I hope this gives you a pretty clear picture of the sort of novel Reynolds has woven for the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am kind of surprised by the slamming Reynolds' Pushing Ice got over at the Alexandrian. As a literary work, Reynolds' Revelation Space is far more space opera than deep exploration of the human experience in a science-fiction context. He does incorporate those themes into his novel, but not with the literary finesse of Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. Nevertheless, Revelation Space is very much the sort of novel that I want to read when I browse through the SF section at Borders.

Check out this post over at the Wertzone for more information on Reynolds' other novels in his Revelation Space series. Indeed, Adam Whitehead has written a nice little profile on Reynolds in case you are interested.

In summary, this book was a really enjoyable read. As hard science-fiction goes, it's all about big ideas and it develops them pretty well. The resolution is a bit weak, but everything fits together well. It's not the best science-fiction novel I read. Reynolds is no Frank Herbert. But he's still a darn good writer, and I found this book to be worthwhile.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Style B
Substance B+
Overall B+

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