Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

2001, Gollancz Books. 480 pages.
Writing rule of thumb: Don’t parcel out your good ideas, saving them for the sequel. It takes more than one to make a good book.

Alastair Reynolds must have listened, because his novel, Revelation Space, is packed with great ideas.

When a 26th-century dig turns up clues about a dead alien civilization on a distant world, archeologist Dan Sylveste will stop at nothing to discover who -- or what -- caused “The Event” that wiped them out. But as determined as Sylveste is to find answers to the mystery of the extinct Amarantin, others are just as determined to find him. Among them, the crew of the city-sized interstellar ship, Nostalgia for Infinity, who need Sylveste to cure their captain of the nano-plague which is slowly consuming both him and their ship. And among them -- assassin Ana Khouri, contracted by the mysterious Madamoiselle, who has her own interest in Sylveste – namely seeing him dead.

Across multiple worlds and decades, these factions pursue their own ends only to find themselves mere pawns in a millennias-old struggle between ancient intellegences. And of course, this is a struggle that will determine the survival of life in the galaxy.

In Revelation Space, Reynolds shows an awe-inspiring vision of 26th-century human civilization. From the rise of interstellar travel and transhumanism, to nano-technology’s permeation of every conceivable facet of existence, the book paints a many-layered universe for its characters so immersive you can swim in it.

Even the characters are object lessons in future technological possibility. Virtual personalities like Sun Stealer and The Madamoiselle provide a backdrop of conflict as they hop between computer systems to cybernetic implants and back again – digital demons possessing both humans and machines at will.

Revelation takes place in the nearby stellar neighborhood.
And then we have Sylveste himself – except he’s not.

In reality, he’s a clone of his own father, Calvin, who also happens to run inside his head as a “beta simulation.” In fact, the original Calvin Sylveste never even makes an appearance – only his many derivatives. And that’s just plain cool.

Side note: the lighthugger ship Nostalgia for Infinity is so richly detailed and fascinating it feels like a character in its own right.

All this serves as window dressing for a singularity-dense plot, rich with a sense of unfolding discovery that kept me turning pages at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

It does take some time for the cast of characters to coalesce a sense of voice (and likeability), but this is a common shortcoming in sci-fi, and more than offset by the book’s myriad other strengths.

If you’ve read any of my earlier reviews, you’ll know I don’t dispense automatic praise. But with four other novels in the same Revelation Space universe waiting, I feel like I’m just getting my feet wet.

And I can’t wait to dive in.

Highly recommended. 5/5

1 comment:

  1. Wandered over from supreme Write, and I'm excited to explore your blog some more... I completely know this sinking feeling as I realize I'm not the only one who comes up with good ideas, but you're totally right. You just have to tell a great story and stay true to your voice.