(2000 / 2007) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 584pp, ISBN 978-0-752-8-8908-5
(2012 reprint) Gollancz, pbk, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-409-13845-7
Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space is one of the novels in the first grouping of Gollancz's new (2007) 'Future Classics' series, though the novel first came out only in 2000. This edition has a two-colour cover (as have the others in the 'Future Classics' series) with one being an effective silvery, metallic sheen. The story itself is a well-crafted space opera detective story with plenty of 'who did its'.
Nine hundred thousand years ago something wiped out the alien Amarantin species: who did it? On the isolated research colony world of Resurgam one man, Sylveste, is uncommonly single-mindedly driven to find out. He is aided by a beta simulation of his father but what happened to the (more refined and complex) alpha simulation and who was responsible for that? Meanwhile on the more established world of Yellowstone, former soldier Ana Kouhri is coerced by the mysterious Mademoiselle into infiltrating a starship to hitch a ride to Resurgam to assassinate Sylveste: who is the Mademoiselle and what did Sylveste do to deserve a strike across the light years? Onboard a light-hugging (near light capable) starship something killed the gunnery officer: who did it? Now the gunnery officer needs replacing and Ana Kouhri seems an ideal recruit. The starship crew as it happens are also about to go to Resurgam to get Sylveste cure their very sick captain. Meanwhile back on Resurgam rival forces to Sylveste's leadership of the embryonic colony take over. Will this mean that he is no longer central to Revelation Space's plot? Well, you can probably guess that this last does not matter a jot as you have to do more than stage a coup to hold a good protagonist down.
Revelation Space's first quarter (120 pages or so) is more than a little confusing. There is so much scene-setting. This is further complicated in that light years separate the three principal groupings of characters so that the order in which information is released is not linear. This is further complicated by one particular flashback (of a few) to before the beginning of the novel. In fact it was sufficiently hard work (I am a simple soul) to knock the edge of my enjoying the story, but Reynolds does tend to come through and I stuck with it. Fortunately calmer water was reached a third of the way through and the rest of the book -- though a roller-coaster as Reynolds tends to be -- saw me in page-turning mode. It was great stuff.
Reynolds' universe is one in which Einstein (or Hawking) rules and the craft do not do FTL. This means that the colony worlds are out of sync with each other and those that are rarely visited (such as Resurgam) have scarce amounts of the latest high-tech. Crews of star craft visiting such worlds are a bit like visiting deities, while the star craft themselves are the most prized items of technology out there in the Galaxy. As for the background to the broader setting of the book, once again Reynolds is exploring potential answers to the Fermi Paradox: something he has touched upon in a couple of his other novels. Consequently the deep time perspective comes into being, though it has to be said that in a biosphere and/or an evolutionary sense nine hundred thousand years is an interesting time interval as it biospherically brief (in terms of big events) yet evolutionarily small at the genus level; while in astronomical terms it is roughly the time it takes to get across the Galaxy at 10% the speed of light which is a figure SETI folk often use when contemplating medium-to-high end rates of galactic exploration. (Reynolds is an astronomer, so make of that what you will, and in Revelation Space his star craft graze the speed of light.) The bottom line, of this musing, is that Revelation Space is a good, hard SF, space opera with a few chunky bits for the SF-loving scientist and some delightfully over-the-top technology.
Since Revelation Space was first published there have been more stories set in this universe (including The Prefect and Redemption Ark as well as the shorts collection Galactic North) and, what is more, actually connected in some way to this novel. These are reviewed elsewhere on the Concatenation site but take care as at least one of these has a spoiler for the Revelation Space story itself. I do, though, mention this because if you have already read some of Reynolds' other novels then you better seek this one out to help make sense of the over-arching picture.
Revelation Space was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke (SF book) Award but did not win. As decent hard SF books tend not to win the Clarke Award (Arthur's own books probably wouldn't' were such an award around in his time), the lack of a Clarke win is not really important. (Clarke winners tend to be, ahem, 'literary'.) However as the Clarke Awards judges do occasionally short-list some fine hard SF, getting short-listed and not winning is perversely quite an accolade! The other thing about Reynolds' novels is that they are apt to get short-listed for the British SF Awards. These, unlike the juried Clarkes, are voted upon by BSFA members and (quite frequently and indeed currently) participants of the UK Eastercon. So regularly getting BSFA short-listing is also quite a tribute. Finally, Gollancz (who at the end of the day have hard-nosed commercial decisions to make) have decided to give this book another airing and have even rated it a 'Future Classic'. All of which means that you do not really need my recommendation to get this book. (Though perhaps my relaying this news was useful?) Just that if you are into hard SF and/or space opera then this one really is most certainly for you.
So what was thought when the book first came out and Reynolds was hardly known? Here is Tony's review written back in 2000.
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