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.