(2016) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 376pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09053-8
It is the far future (possibly) and humanity is spread out across the planetary system orbiting the Old Sun (possibly our sun), living in some 20,000 'worlds' for which read a variety of mega-large space stations as part of some 50 million artificial objects in what is called 'the Congregation'.
Humanity has seen its civilisation rise and fall many times with many, many dark ages in between each iteration of civilisation. The current iteration of a planetary system wide civilisation has lasted some 18 centuries.
Many of the uninhabited bodies in the planetary system are shielded by an impenetrable force field that protects these 'baubles'. However once in a while these shields fall away to allow a short period of access. This enables those brave enough to land and venture in to search for ancient technologies that can be sold for 'quoins'. And then there are the aliens (who come from who knows where) one species of whom seem to have an interest in the 'quoins' the humans use as currency.
Adrana and Arafura (Fura) Ness are sisters whose father made a foolish investment and, though not broke, is very much down on his luck. Fed up with their cosseted life, the sisters decide for adventure and to seek a new family fortune. This is possible when they discover that the have the rare ability to interface with the electronic circuitry embedded in the bone skulls of long dead, advanced aliens. A consequence is that they can sense what others, similarly accessing other distant bones, are thinking. This ability means that the sisters can serve as communicators in an almost telepathic way which is an essential ability employed by spacecraft crews to keep in touch across planetary distances without speed-of-light delays. (Presumably it is a quantum entanglement thing.) And so Adrana and Fura find themselves as bone readers on a ship bound for a bauble due to open. But not every spacecraft in the Congregation has honourable intentions. Others might jump their claim, and worse there is a legendary pirate somewhere out there…
Revenger is not the usual hard-ish SF space opera that we normally associate with the author. Having said that, he has well over a dozen novels to his name and his stylistic approach has varied in the past. What Revenger is is his steampunk riff novel. Though Revenger is not steampunk in its purest sense – there are no clockwork computers and steam powered aeroplanes – it does have a clear steampunk riff very much to the fore. Humans travelling within the Congregation use solar sails (hard SF) but employing parlance common to 17th and 18th century wind-driven galleons. Individuals are referred to as 'coves' and the searching for and opening of historic 'baubles' can be likened to the hunt for buried treasure on some distant island. And then there is the threat of being jumped either by overly enthusiastic or brutal competition, or outright criminals, which can be likened to pirates on the high seas. The reading of (alien circuitry embedded) bones can be equated to 17th and 18th clairvoyance or the earlier readings by auguries, though this last is more applicable to those crew who specialise in predicting when baubles will temporarily let down their force-fields and so allow access.
If you like steampunk then Revenger is certainly for you. Yet equally, even if steampunk is not your usual fare, the hard-ish SF backdrop solidly underpins the novel and so you can take the steampunk simply as signalling (which it certainly does) that the humans in this story have forgotten their history and are using language that explains things as they (though not you the reader) understand it. So, for example, things like 'swallowers' are in fact black holes which are used at the centre of some of the 'worlds' (mega-large space stations) to provide gravity. There are also the aliens (distinctly non-human) though how they get to (and from) the congregation from the galaxy beyond is unclear (but is referred to at least once).
Revenger is set very much in a futuristic dark age amidst the remains of what went before. The set-up is directly analogous to what it must have been like before mediaeval times when living and recorded memory (to a largely illiterate population) of the glorious Roman Empire had long gone but many of the previous empire's artefacts and buildings (all be they in ruins) remained. In Revenger it is clear that humans had once – indeed several times –developed a technological civilisation with Revenger being set in the latest of these times, but that in the past some of the previous civilisations had been more advanced. So we have a set-up in which there are mysterious aliens but also a mysterious human past.
Revenger is a story told in a linear way very much from the single perspective of Fura Ness: only a few of Alastair Reynolds recent novels have such a singular, straightforward perspective which makes for a change having just had his 'Elephant' ('Poseidon's Children saga' as it is officially being marketed) loose trilogy with protagonists separated in space and time literally by light years. Revenger's plot is also a fairly standard one: siblings go on a quest; get separated in a traumatic event; and then one seeks reunion as well as revenge for the said trauma. Yet, it is an engaging read which is what we expect from this seasoned author, with the reader's attention held not just by plot development but also the exploration of the story's rich set up and fascinating backdrop that is elucidated with the plot's progression.
Revenger will not disappoint Reynolds' many fans, and may well – with its steampunk overtones – bring him new ones. It is a gung-ho tale of derring-do and an account of: mysteries in places on the map that might well be marked 'here be dragons'; loyalty; betrayal; familial tension; and treasure whose value is not entirely, truly appreciated. Above all it neatly straddles two popular SF subgenres which itself is something few writers can so neatly pull off.
Arrgh there me coves. Time to unfurl them sails…
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