Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds (2000)
A debut novel from Reynolds which gives us hope for the future of Space Opera.
In a plot at first startlingly similar to Jack McDevitt’s ‘Engines of God’, archaeological findings on the recently colonised planet Resurgam seem to suggest planetary genocide some 900,000 years before. The archaeologist and central figure, Dan Sylveste, is being hunted, both by a highly trained assassin and a Triumvir of augmented humans, who are all dragged in to the machinations of an artificial intelligence whose motives may not bode well for the future of the human race.
It’s a deep and complex novel, rich in detail and texture and not a little gothic.
Reynolds is keen to keep the science accurate, and much of the plotting and timescale is affected by the time dilation effect. The assassin, Khouri, for instance, begins the book mourning the loss of her husband, as due to a clerical error, their cryogenic suspension units were shipped to different destinations. The TD effect means that if she were to set off to join him he would be decades older than she, or even dead, by the time they were reunited.
The triumvir, spending all their lives on board ship, have spent ten years searching for Sylveste, while he, through regular rejuvenation treatment, has lived some three hundred years on a planetary surface.
It is refreshing to see a writer take on – rather than ignore – the scientific reality of space travel, and explore the ramifications of what it could mean in human terms.
In characterisation, Reynolds has created very believable – in some cases grotesque – characters, leaving aliens as part of the back story. The Shrouders and the Pattern-Jugglers are, as real aliens probably should be, very alien and unknowable, and Reynolds wisely avoids spending much time describing or humanising them, other than briefly relating past events in Sylveste’s life and his encounters with both species.
The alternate aliens in this novel are the humans, many of whom, by the 24th century, have either genetically altered their bodies, augmented them with machine grafts and nanotechnology, or have changed physically through life in zero gravity environments.
Society is mostly grim. Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone, like most of human society as far as we know, has been affected by the melding plague which attempts to hybridise any computer-controlled environment it affects. Thus, the city is slowly changing, its buildings and soft/hardware growing randomly like a silicon cancer. Heavily chimerised individuals have become hermetic and live in sealed palanquins to protect themselves from contamination.
The heavily augmented captain of the triumvir’s spacecraft is badly affected by the plague and is slowly being grafted onto the systems of his own ship.
Gadgets and scientific marvels abound. Reynolds throws them in almost effortlessly, but never forgets that his characters are essentially human.
It’s a very impressive work of modern Space Opera in a highly individual style.
So what’s it about?
Much of it is about motive and why we do the things we do, and examines in various ways, the concept of ‘self’. Some of the characters have agendas even they don’t know about. Khouri, the assassin, for instance, takes on the assignment to kill Sylveste because she has been assured that her husband was not sent to another planet and will be waiting in suspension for her on her return.
However, she is subject to loyalty treatments and has her mind invaded by a malign alien AI. Is she then truly responsible for her own motives and actions?
Similarly, another of the Triumvir has had his mind rearranged by the alien Pattern-Jugglers, as has Sylveste, who also is forced unwillingly to allow his father’s AI simulation to ‘possess’ his mind, and may all along have been controlled by an alien AI.
Most of the main characters have had their minds in the control of someone else at some point, which raises a certain level of Dickian paranoia.
The centre of paranoia is certainly Sylveste. He lives a life in which he can trust no-one, maybe not even himself. His biographer turns out to be the daughter of his arch enemy, although she manages to convince him eventually that she loves him. Other enemies attempt his assassination at his wedding, and after a political coup, he is imprisoned and blinded.
Ultimately, he discovers that he is a clone of his own father, and may not have been in control of his own life for at least the last three hundred years.
It’s a fascinating and very refreshing piece of work, gobsmackingly good in fact, and is highly recommended for students of post-Dickian SF psychological analysis.