You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2021.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (2004) 565 p.

I suppose it’s appropriate that the Revelation Space series should end as it began, on a similar note as the original novel Revelation Space: full of interesting ideas that felt half-baked or underdeveloped, hampered by poor characterisation and a bloated, glacial plot.

Absolution Gap begins twenty years after Redemption Ark ended, with the refugees of the annihilated world Resurgam having established a small colony on the oceanic world Ararat, aware that this will only ever be a brief reprieve before the utterly hostile civilisation-destroying machines they call the Inhibitors find them again. Clavain (the previous novel’s protagonist) is called out of hermitude by the hyperpig Scorpio (a supporting character in the previous novel, but very much the main character now) to deal with the mysterious spacecraft that has fallen from the sky into the ocean. Thus begins the next period in their life of travails, which will end a real-time century later orbiting a mysterious planet around a much more distant star.

Revelation Space introduced the first hints of the Inhibitors, and Redemption Ark showed us what they’re capable of: dismantling planets to build gargantuan weapons systems and harnessing the energy of suns to flamethrower entire planets into oblivion. I thought Absolution Gap would be a novel of apocalyptic destruction, a big-screen finale to the trilogy, with Reynolds tearing apart the complex world he’d established over three previous novels and countless short stories. But this is still his hard science fiction universe, where travel between the stars is a slow and arduous affair. One of the aspects I quite liked was that a hundred years after the events of Redemption Ark, people in the outlying star systems are well aware that something nasty has started snuffing out life in the older-settled worlds, but don’t really see it as a problem in their immediate future – because it isn’t. When an Ultra captain mentions off-hand that his ship carrying thousands of refugees was one of the last out of Sky’s Edge – an ominous sentence meaning that one of the more familiar planets in the series has been obliterated – he’s talking about events which occurred forty or fifty years earlier. The awakening of the Inhibitors is not some new and sudden cataclysm, but rather a background threat which most of the adult characters in the novel have been aware of for most of their lives; something which bodes very poorly for the vaguely realised concept of “the future of the human race,” but is possibly or even likely not something which will impact their own lifespans and is therefore not something they think about from day to day. I doubt Reynolds meant it as an allegory in the early 2000s, but it’s impossible to read it now and not think of climate change.

What I didn’t like about Absolution Gap was pretty much everything else. It starts out relatively strongly with twin stories: the mysterious spacecraft on Ararat confronted by familiar characters, plus a storyline with new characters on an Ultra lighthugger called the Gnostic Ascension. The Ultras – the deeply weird, genetically and mechanically enhanced, centuries-old crews of interstellar spacecraft – have always been one of the more interesting parts of the Revelation Space universe, and this one taps back into that vein by introducing a sado-masochistic “queen” who rules violently over the ship and has her crews’ lives at her mercy, really underlining the fact that spacecraft which spend years travelling between stars are really entirely independent little worlds unto themselves. Unfortunately Reynolds then abandons this story and jumps ahead a century to focus on the society and the religion founded by one of these Ultras, resulting in what has to be one of the most annoyingly (and in this case literally) wheel-spinning plots that goes nowhere that I’ve ever seen in science fiction. A good editor easily could have sliced out more than half of the storyline on Hela without losing anything of note. Similarly, back on Ararat, it’s more than 200 pages – almost a third of the book! – before the downed spacecraft storyline goes anywhere.

What’s most frustrating about Absolution Gap is that the resolution of human contact with the Inhibitors (you know, the point of this whole trilogy) is “resolved” in literally the last ten pages with one of the most egregious deus ex machina I’ve ever seen. It’s almost insulting. Reynolds has a single short story, Galactic North, which takes place before, during and after the events of the main trilogy and shows us a little of the world beyond this timeframe; I’ve read it, and so had some vague idea of what to expect, especially since the deus ex machina in question is referenced off-hand in Absolution Gap’s prologue. (In retrospect Galactic North really just feels like laying the groundwork for the idea of a single human travelling near the speed of light so much that they’re skipping through time and only touching down at certain isolated points in history, which Reynolds would explore more fully in the excellent House of Suns.) But both the prologue and the short story – and readers of a standalone trilogy of novels should not be expected to have read the author’s previous Interzone publications anyway – led me to believe that this novel might actually involve the establishment of this human-alien partnership in some way, rather than spending 500+ pages on an obscure religious cult which ultimately amounts to nothing before handwaving the Inhibitor threat away in the last few pages.

It’s a real shame. I liked the Revelation Space universe a lot; I’ll still read the Prefect trilogy, which take place hundreds of years before this one, and I’ll still read Inhibitor Phase, which Reynolds published this year and which I understand involves a smaller-scale story about a group of humans trying to survive during the Inhibitors’ purge of their society. But this was a disappointing wrap-up to an otherwise great series.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds (2002) 646 p.

Revelation Space, the first novel in a future history Reynolds had been writing in short fiction since the 1980s, ended with the revelation of a dire threat facing humanity’s nascent interstellar society: the provocation of an ancient galactic machinery set in place to wipe out intelligent life. Chasm City, a prequel, told a standalone story in which the threat of that machinery is only briefly touched upon, in an eerie encounter with an alien which describes how its own species has been harried to the point of extinction.

Redemption Ark, which continues the trilogy proper, explores the first real contact between human beings and the alien machines they come to call Inhibitors, as the predators arrive in the same system as the sparsely populated planet Resurgam – where most of Revelation Space took place, and from where the Inhibitors’ warning system was triggered – and begin deconstructing the moons of a gas giant to provide themselves with the raw material to build something else, which the characters surmise will be some kind of gargantuan weapon. One of the things I admire about Reynolds’ universe is that it mostly adheres to the iron laws of science and space-time, and properly instils in the reader a sense of just how vast it is. In a book involving interstellar travel it’s natural to feel like intrastellar distances are no big deal. But the Inhibitors arriving around another planet is as distant from the people of Resurgam as an alien incursion into the moons of Jupiter would be for us, particularly since their isolation from the rest of human-settled space means their technology has regressed and they’re no longer capable of space travel on their own. The only people aware of the Inhibitors’ arrival are the three remaining crew of the enormous spacecraft Nostalgia for Infinity, which arrived in the system in Revelation Space and provided another example of that vast distance: a powerful starship is perfectly capable of showing up and threatening your entire planet with its advanced and powerful weapons, and what is any other government or authority twenty years’ of light travel away going to do about it?

There’s another excellent demonstration of this in Redemption Ark, as protagonist Clavain (from Reynolds’ short stories Great Wall of Mars and Glacier) defects from his own people, the Borg-like Conjoiners, upon learning that they plan to abandon the rest of humanity to the Inhibitors, and then gives chase to their own agent Skade as she attempts to lead a warship to Resurgam first, to recover the advanced weapons secreted aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity. This leads to one of the most inventive setpieces I’ve read in sci-fi, unfolding across subjective years of relativistic high-speed travel, Skade laying traps for Clavain’s ship in her wake, which he then has to devise means to counter. (“He had the feeling that Skade and he were making up the rules of interstellar combat as they went on.”)

It’s been too long since I read Revelation Space to tell whether Reynolds has improved at the things that bugged me or whether I’m just more tolerant of them now; I suspect the latter. He’s still prone to infodumping and could still use tighter editing, though I at least liked his characters better this time, who are less Machiavellian psychopaths and more hyper-competent people who are doing what they genuinely think is best for innocent people in the face of an extinction-level threat. Even Skade, the novel’s most ruthless antagonist, has ultimately altruistic motives – in fact, in their own inhuman way, so do the Inhibitors.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m tired of saving-the-world stories, and prefer a well-told story about smaller stakes affecting only a handful of characters; because of course if something means the world to an individual, well, that’s all that needs to matter to the audience. (A good example of this is the surprisingly fun Star Wars film Solo, which I think I enjoyed more than any of the franchise’s main entries; also The Mandalorian, though that’s superior to the rest of the main series for a number of other reasons too.) I found this reversed with Revelation Space and Redemption Ark: it’s all much more interesting now that the survival of the human race is at stake. Probably that’s just because Reynolds isn’t the best character writer in the world, and the most interesting thing about Revelation Space was its aesthetics of Gothic horror in space. In Redemption Ark he properly begins the story that perfectly matches the universe of eerie dread he’s created. It’s another big thick book, but I think I might just go straight on to the end of the trilogy, Absolution Gap, to wrap up the year.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian (1993) 308 p.

Book sixteen of the Aubrey-Maturin series and book four of their five-book circumnavigation of the globe, The Wine-Dark Sea sees the Surprise move on from the Polynesian island of Moahu for the western shores of South America. In other words it’s another chapter of O’Brian’s giga-novel, and a fairly diffuse one. It begins with strange and unprecedented quirks of ocean behaviour and air pressure which both Aubrey and Maturin are at a loss to explain, but which the reader has probably figured out from the cover illustration, yet which nonetheless marvellously presents another unexpected wonder of the big wide watery world. We then encounter the French revolutionary from Moahu with his dangerously democratic ideas which come to influence the lower decks; Stephen’s mission to attempt to turn the government of Peru towards Britain rather than France; a dangerous escapade for Jack and some officers in a small boat; and probably the book’s most memorable chapter, a naturalising sojourn for Stephen in the Andes featuring llamas, condors, bromeliads and altitude-sickness-inducing heights.

“If you are as mistaken about the birds as you are about my head for heights, Molina will have no great burden to carry, at all,” reflected Stephen, who had often heard, each time with deeper dismay, of the spidery Inca bridges upon which intrepid Indians crossed torrents raging a thousand feet below them, even hauling immobilized animals over by means of a primitive windlass, the whole construction swaying wildly to and fro as even a single traveller reached the middle, the first false step being the last. “How long does it take to fall a thousand feet?” he asked himself, and as the troop set out he tried to make the calculation; but his arithmetical powers were and always had been weak. “Long enough to make an act of contrition, at all events,” he said, abandoning the answer of seven hours and odd seconds as absurd.

I think this is also the first of the novels I’ve read since revisiting Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is both a better film and a better adaptation than I remembered. The Jack and Stephen of the film are not quite the Jack and Stephen of the books, and yet I still found the actors’ voices slipping into my internal narration as I read, and some uncharitable part of my brain almost wishes Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany’s careers would fall on hard times so they end up on Cameo and we can pay them to read out passages of dialogue.

Archive Calendar

December 2021