Fiction Reviews

Inhibitor Phase

(2021) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 464pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09071-2


This is the latest in Alastair Reynolds 'Revelation Space' sequence, the last being Elysium Fire (2018) which in turn was his first 'Revelation Space' novel for roughly a decade. However, the author has written this as a standalone and so newcomers to 'Revelation Space' can start here if they want: though they may be better served beginning with the novel Revelation Space itself or another standalone novel in the sequence that, other than setting, has less of connection with earlier works, such as The Prefect [Aurora Rising] or Chasm City, even if many features in the sequence are referenced.

So, newcomers to 'Revelation Space' should just consider it a setting for the novel and not something in itself (even if this setting does have a substantive pedigree).

It is a few centuries into the future and humanity has spread out – mainly a hundred or so light years – into the stars in an Einstein relativity way, sub light. Some worlds have been settled: some hospitable, others less so. There are also orbiting O'Neill type settlements and the occasional alien.

It has to be said that Alastair Reynolds shoots stonkingly solid and stupendous SF and he has done it for now (2022) getting on for something like a quarter of a century. True, there have been other providers of excellent SF but few have had the staying power of Reynolds. So you can take it as read that all the reviewers on the SF² Concatenation team, including myself, who have reviewed the man's stories, rate him very highly. So bear this in mind for any criticism that follows as it is his own fault that he has set the bar so high!

Inhibitor Phase starts of with an attention-grabbing scenario. Michael is a red dwarf star in the back-end of nowhere in the Galaxy. Orbiting it is a planet, halfway in size between Earth and Mars, called Michelmas. On Michelmas there is a small settlement of about five thousand humans – the subterranean Sun Hollow – and they are one of the few, scattered remnants of humanity in hiding from the 'wolves' or 'Inhibitors': alien xenocidal machines bent on wiping out any sentience and that includes humans.

Miguel de Ruyter is one of Sun Hollow's leaders, but at the start of the book he is on an in-system mission to destroy an incoming spaceship whose presence might give away the human settlement to the Inhibitors: so far, for around forty years, they have not attracted the Inhibitors to the Michael system and they want to keep it that way even if it means destroying a human ship.

Miguel manages to wipe out the ship in a way that makes it seem to a casual observer as if an accident has occurred. However, there is a survivor and Miguel manages to retrieve her for resuscitating back in Sun Hollow.

Back in Sun Hollow the enigmatic survivor regains consciousness but the settlement's seismic detectors pick up a distant plod, plod, plod. It is as it there is someone far away, with heavy steps, slowly walking towards Sun Hollow…

The plot arc of Inhibitor Phase is basically a quest. In this instance it is the search for technology that be used to combat the Inhibitors. But it is not the goal so much as the getting there that forms the novel's substance. Here, not only do we get a journey (including to a place those already familiar with 'Revelation Space' will recognise) but also a flash back to an historical Mars. (Remember, the relativistic effects of space travel at near light speed can make some very long-lived.) And there are human uplifted sentient pigs. In short, there is plenty to see and many to meet.

Does this work as a stand-alone novel? Well, the Inhibitors appear in some other 'Revelation Space' stories, including Redemption Ark. Other than the titular short story in the collection Galactic North (which I devoured over a decade and a half ago and which only gives the Inhibitors a passing mention), I have not read other works with an Inhibitor focus: back in the day someone else was handling SF² Concatenation's book review operation and so I came to Reynolds comparatively late. With this in mind, and entertained as I was, I felt that Inhibitor Phase lacked a dimension or two. One had to take almost for granted the why's and wherefores of some of the historical factious conflict. And what is it with the Inhibitors? Why are they doing what they are doing? For me, compared to many of his other works, this was an impediment to getting the full Reynolds experience. (Though, do remember from the start of this review that the bar is set rather high.)

Mercifully, there is a short, one-page, introduction that helps newcomers somewhat get up to 'Revelation Space' speed. This introduction warns that there is an afterword 'note on chronology' that contains mild spoilers: this truly needs to be at the back. And so I did not discover until late on also at the back a useful selected glossary: this should really have been at the front and I hope for future editions Gollancz relocates it with the author's blessing.

Further, one of the problems in devouring an author's oeuvre in real time, as books appear, is that it can be many years, even decades, between reading a novel and a new connected one. Conversely, readers who, for the first time, come across an author mid-writing career, can over a short space of time explore their backlist. Reading authors' series of novels this way requires them to have less connective tissue. That said, at over 460 pages, there is little room to manoeuvre if the author and publisher wish to avoid unduly bulky tomes. (There is a market for these less portable books that also can be daunting necessitating an investment of reader commitment at the outset, but I am not sure it is as big as for more standard-sized books.) Equally, there is a lot going on in Inhibitor Phase, what with all the journeying associated with the quest and the periodic flashbacks. Perhaps, and only perhaps, if it was a little less busy and a bit more explained – after all there are plenty of opportunities for semi-disguised exposition as characters come together across space and time – I might have enjoyed it more. This is not to say I did not like Inhibitor Phase, I did but not quite as much as some of his other novels, including other 'Revelation Space' stories. Nonetheless, Reynolds' fans – and he has many including us – will love it. There are some great set pieces especially the opening in Sun Hollow and a return to Yellowstone: there is much for readers to enjoy.

Also, if you are new to Reynolds, do seek out the aforementioned collection Galactic North. Its short stories span much of Revelation Space's future history and propel readers into his other Revelation Space novels. What's more there is an interesting essay at the collection's end on the sources of inspiration for Revelation Space.

Me, I am now off to have a bacon butty (not uplifted) before re-reading the short, 'Galactic North'.

Jonathan Cowie


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