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.