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Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds (2021) 465 p.

Mild spoilers for the original Revelation Space trilogy from here onwards

I only finished reading the Revelation Space trilogy last year, and found Absolution Gap to be a disappointing conclusion in which Reynolds failed to grasp precisely what made the series so interesting in the first place. After spending three novels (if you include Chasm City) and a raft of short stories creating a fascinatingly bleak and frightening universe – a world of extinct alien civilisations and authoritarian governments and terrifying technological plagues and, ultimately, the accidental provocation of dormant galaxy-spanning machinery which quite efficiently dedicates itself to exterminating humanity – Reynolds appeared to get distracted. Absolution Gap, while it had many good points and is not what I would call a bad book, skimmed over what readers might want to see in a concluding novel about an interstellar apocalypse in favour of a story about a planet of mobile cathedrals and characters nobody cared about.

That was 2003. Reynolds went on to hone his writing skill, to publish many other rightfully acclaimed novels – particularly Pushing Ice and House of Suns – and who are we to say, at the height of his career, that an author should not revisit the series that first made his name? Perhaps he felt unsatisfied with Absolution Gap. Perhaps he felt a missed opportunity; perhaps he wanted to examine what that centuries-long slow motion extinction at the hands of the Inhibitors was like for people other than the characters at the centre of Absolution Gap’s very tight focus. These are reasonable conclusions you might draw from the blurb and the title of the aptly named Inhibitor Phase, and I for one was more than willing to read a do-over after Absolution Gap focused on dull characters in unimportant places which ignored the more interesting aspects of the plot, and culminated in a cheap deus ex machina ending.

Inhibitor Phase – to an almost unbelievable degree – focuses on dull characters in unimportant places, ignores the more interesting aspects of the plot, and culminates in a cheap deus ex machina ending. Worst of all, it’s mostly the same characters, the same places, and the same deus ex machina ending.

Strong spoilers for Inhibitor Phase from here onwards

The novel begins strongly, with our protagonist Miguel de Ruyter in a spacecraft en route to destroy a vessel which has entered the system he calls home. Sun Hollow is an underground settlement of about five thousand souls on a planet with a highly active star, founded by refugees desperate to find a place they could escape the attentions of the Inhibitors; it isn’t specified precisely when in the timeline this novel occurs, but it’s clear the lights have gone out across human-settled space. De Ruyter plans to destroy the incoming vessel lest it alert the Inhibitors to human activity in the system; a ruthless but necessary action. So far, so good – this stacks up with what I expect from humanity’s Inhibitor phase, and all the better when the vessel has a single survivor who turns out to be far more technologically advanced than the post-apocalyptic denizens of Sun Hollow, and uses that power to abduct de Ruyter on a mission to save the world.

Things fall apart when they go to Yellowstone. One of my disappointments with Absolution Gap was that it skimmed over the grand destruction of the centre of human civilisation; it’s interesting to see Reynolds revisit the world and observe it as a dead husk, but less interesting when we go on a diversion to the depths of Chasm City to revisit the criminal underworld which – more than fifty years after the Inhibitors laid waste to the entire system – appears to be getting along just fine. This is jarring, to say the least, and undercuts the sense of predation built up in the first segment in Sun Hollow; in fact it reminded me of the moment in the novel Jurassic Park (wisely absent from the film) when, after it’s been drilled into the reader how terrifyingly dangerous the velociraptors are, the main characters slide down into their breeding nest without a care in the world. And aside from being misaligned on in-universe terms, it also just feels tedious. Really? This again? We’ve been there, done that, and a crime boss in the slums of Chasm City is not remotely as interesting as the Inhibitors.

This feeling of treading old ground is unfortunately reinforced by the characters: Miguel de Ruyter turns out to be Nevil Clavain’s long-lost brother. A hyperpig encountered in Yellowstone turns out to be Scorpio. The woman they encounter at the same time turns out to be, by a different name, one of the protagonists of Absolution Gap whose name I’ve forgotten. Characters have never been Reynolds’ strong suit, but the fact he chose to return to this well (after two decades!) suggests that he thinks they are. Particularly annoying is the way the characters elevate Scorpio to an almost Christ-like figure. I read the original trilogy last year, not in the early 2000s when it was first published, and even I can’t recall precisely what he did to deserve that.

Inhibitor Phase, like Absolution Gap before it, is not a bad book. It has some dull stretches and the dialogue and repetition got on my nerves sometimes, but it’s pretty readable and has some good setpieces. But it’s a deeply frustrating missed opportunity – all the more so because it’s a follow-up, eighteen years later, to a book which was also a deeply frustrating missed opportunity.

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