Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (2000) 545p.
Alastair Reynolds is one of those fairly big names in modern sci-fi, like Peter F. Hamilton or Greg Bear, whom I’ve been meaning to read for ages now. Revelation Space, his first novel, is a space opera taking place hundreds of years in the future, focusing mainly around the dusty, Mars-like planet of Resurgam, where archaeologist Dan Sylveste is studying the Amarantin – the planet’s native species, wiped out 900,000 years ago by a massive coronal event.
Reynolds’ galaxy is not exactly a bustling hive of variety – we visit only two worlds, and the two extant alien species are a type of sentient, planet-covering algae and unknown, uncontacted beings called “Shrouders” who live behind hostile barriers in space. Reynolds’ fictional world is more of a dark and frightening place, where humans live under strange political systems, half-ruined cities are gripped by nanotech “plagues,” and academics explore long-dead alien cities. I particularly liked the atmosphere aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a starship where much of the story takes place, massive in scale yet crewed by only five people. Reynolds gives the impression the ship was once a much grander and greater vehicle, but has fallen into decay and loneliness as the remaining crew spend most of their time in cryogenic sleep, travelling from star to star, searching for a cure for their dying captain.
Reynolds is also, unfortunately, one of those science fiction authors whose writing ability lags well behind his imagination. The book is bloated and ponderous, with occasional action sequences broken up by long passages of awkward dialogue and exposition. There is not a single likeable character in the entire cast – which I think was intentional – but neither are the bad attributes of those particular characters very well-founded. For example, when the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity visit Resurgam to recruit Sylveste, they opt for the stick rather than the carrot – despite the fact that it’s been well established that this is a cut-off, struggling colony world and the starship would have plenty to offer its citizens in exchange for Sylveste. The answer to this, I imagine, is simply that the ship’s acting captain is an asshole – but it still comes off as unrealistic. Reynolds is one of those authors who I imagine as being a very friendly, pleasant fellow in person, yet creates fictional worlds in which various Machiavellian characters act with brutality and subterfuge, and nod coolly at each other, explaining in stilted exposition that they respect each others’ brutality. I don’t mind reading about unlikeable characters, but I prefer them to be believably unlikeable.
As for the plot itself, it’s not too bad, when all’s said and done – except for a point midway through the novel when one character explains to another exactly what’s at stake, and this information is kept from the reader. A little way down the track, Reynolds does this again, and again, and again, and by the time the climax is taking place, every single character knows what’s going on except for the reader. Letting characters know things that the reader doesn’t is a technique that can be done well when used subtly and sparingly, but not when the author openly has a character say they’re about to explain everything, then end the chapter and jump to another story thread. It’s brazen and clumsy and did not endear me to the story.
Revelation Space is not a bad book, by science fiction standards, but neither is it particularly good. I’d be open to reading more books by Reynolds in the future (this was, after all, his first) but I won’t be rushing to do so.