24 January 2010

Book Review: Revelation Space

Posted by Ryan Anderson

I just finished reading Revelation Space, a hard sci-fi space opera written by Alastair Reynolds.

The premise of the story is that in the distant future, when humans have spread into deep space, they discover the remains of the Amarantin civilization that was wiped out just as it discovered spaceflight. The main character, Dan Sylveste is a scientist studying that civilization, driven by an unstoppable compulsion to solve the mystery of what happened to the Amarantin. Meanwhile, Ana Khouri is an assassin who has been hired by the mysterious “Mademoiselle” to kill Sylveste and prevent him from discovering the answer. A third main character, Volyova, is one of only a handful of surviving crewmembers on a starship that holds some of the most powerful weapons ever concieved. The ship is gradually being consumed by a virus emanating from their captain, who is kept frozen in stasis to slow the spread of the infection. Volyova hires Khouri as gunnery officer on the ship, but things get interesting when it turns out that Sylveste is the only person who might have a chance of stopping the virus.

Sound complicated? It is. And that’s basically just the set-up. That little summary leaves out many of the subplots and several other characters. This book is intricate and it takes concentration to understand what is going on. In fact, I really didn’t know what was happening for large portions of the first half of the novel. I am glad I pressed on though, because a lot of the pieces introduced in the first half end up fitting together into a very bizarre but somewhat more comprehensible whole by the end.

One of the main problems is that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic or even likeable. Dramatic events occurred throughout the novel and I never really felt any emotional connection to the characters involved. Heck, two of the characters fall in love and get married and, at least to me, there was no hint of real affection between them at any point. This lack of character connection makes events that already are a bit fuzzy even harder to follow.

I think part of the bewilderment that I experienced was deliberate on the part of the author. The real driving force behind this book is not the characters but the detailed vision of the future that it portrays. Reynolds has created a future full of fantastically detailed technological marvels and he wants you to be a little bit confused but impressed by them. The line between organic and inorganic, computer and brain in this vision of the future is very blurry, and Reynolds makes good use of this. For example, at one point, competing entities do battle with one another after finding themselves both downloaded into one of the main characters’ brains. Ships are capable of manufacturing their own components, or weapons, or other ships, using that universal magic of modern sci-fi: nanotechnology. Spacesuits are no longer bulky bags of breathable air, they are shape-shifting, heavily armed, antimatter-powered intelligent spacecraft in their own right.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that the technology described was always well grounded. Reynolds in an astrophysicist, and it shows. Most of the technology described is so far beyond our current capabilities that it might as well be magic, but Reynolds has enough scientific knowledge to spin some extremely convincing technobabble. He has clearly put enough thought into the ideas to understand some of the more subtle implications. Nothing goes faster than light, suits need to refuel their thrusters, relativistic effects play an important role, etc.

As a scientist myself, the tech-talk wasn’t what got me confused. The politics and the backstory were what left me scratching my head. I wish Reynolds had spent less time on the tech-talk and a little more time fleshing out the cultures and geography and political landscape, especially as they related to the main characters and main events. It doesn’t give away too much to say that there is a political assassination at some point in the book, and I had only the faintest understanding of why it occurred and what it meant. Sylveste starts off as a political figure of some power, but it was never really clear to me why or how he ended up that way.

Complaints about confusion and characterization notwithstanding, I liked the ending. A lot of the seemingly disparate pieces finally do come together, and they form a bizarre and mind-bending conclusion that was nonetheless pretty satisfying.

Bottom line, I would recommend this book to people who like their sci-fi mind-bending and “hard”. For deep emotional connections and characterization, look elsewhere. But if you want a nice long immersion in an awesomely imagined intricate and strange future that still manages to be surprisingly convincing, I’d recommend Revelation Space.