Absolution Gap (2003) is the third book in Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE series of large-canvas hard SF in which post-human factions battle each other and implacable machines bent on exterminating sentient life. The series has elements of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE novels, Peter Watt’s Blindsight, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and even Lovecraft, but is nowhere near as good. I’ve held off on final judgement till I finished this book, but have to conclude that while Reynolds can do credible world-building and post-humans, his storytelling technique is like nails on chalkboard for me — cold and unappealing characters, glacial pacing, and a dreadful habit of keeping the most interesting events offstage and filling the main narrative with hundreds of pages of interminable talk and exposition. Hardly anything interesting happens, and when it does, it never gets proper treatment. The series is like a drawn-out strip-tease that lures you in with implacable aliens, gothic spaceships, nano plagues and obsessive post-humans, but turns into a series of pointless intrigues among different human factions while the implacable alien machines inexorably close in for the kill. By the end I was rooting for them to win.
Absolution Gap is set among several overlapping time periods and locales. One storyline takes up after the end of Redemption Ark, on the water planet of Ararat, where Clavain and the human-pig hybrid Scorpio landed with the Nostalgia for Infinity to escape the encroaching Inhibitors. When a space pod arrives, carrying Ana Khouri, their quiet life of exile is forever. This is soon followed by the discovery of Skade, a Conjoiner from the previous books, who has done something extraordinarily cruel in order to secure a living link to alien technology from the Hades Matrix computer from Revelation Space.
In a separate narrative, we are introduced to Rashmika Els, a 17-year-old girl who lives on the planet Hela, which is dominated by a strange theocracy of Adventists whose main belief is that they must continually observe a star called Haldora. They do this by building moving Cathedrals that trek across the planet along the Way, in a bizarre conflation of the moving city of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World and the complex religious factions of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. The Adventists have been established by Quaische, and they use “indoctrinal viruses” to keep the faithful in line. It’s a strange story to fold into the larger narrative — I spent the entire book wondering what the relevance of Hela was to the fight against the Inhibitors, and Reynolds does not reveal this until the last 100 pages. In fact, despite learning what Haldora really is and how it holds the key to a danger even greater than the Inhibitors as well as a possible salvation for humanity, I just wish the entire storyline was removed from Absolution Gap. It didn’t interest me, the characters’ motivations were murky, and story could have been much better without it.
I won’t describe all the myriad plot details of this 756-page doorstopper. Instead, without straying too far into spoiler territory, let me just say that despite all those pages to work with, the story basically refused to satisfy any of the following questions:
- More details on the origins of the “hell-class” cache weapons — Yes, there was some explanation in Redemption Ark, but that only raised much bigger questions that were then completely left hanging. If humanity can create such weapons, why only 40? And what about other measures?
- What is the origin of the Hades Matrix computer — an alien creation, yes, but how does it connect with the Inhibitors or any of the other super-powerful alien races in the galaxy? Its role is surprisingly minor.
- What happened to the Shrouders, who just disappear stage-left without even a farewell? We learn who they were in Revelation Space, and that was it.
- The motivation behind the Inhibitors’ destruction of star-faring races was revealed in Redemption Ark, but once again this raises much bigger questions, so the reader is left sitting at the dinner table, stuck with the bill and no answers.
- Though we finally, after hundreds of pointless conflict among human factions, discover the significance of Haldora, Reynolds almost immediately tells us it’s a gas giant-sized Red Herring and we’re not going in that narrative direction. Instead, he turns to an entirely new player that has been quietly lurking in the shadows and keeping tabs on us. And for good measure, with just an an epilogue left, we learn of yet another implacable threat to the galaxy! Good grief, talk about badly-timed revelations.
Overall, my experience with the REVELATION SPACE trilogy, despite high expectations fueled by many positive reviews, has been one mostly of frustration and disappointment. Each author and reader establish a unique relationship, and this one has not been positive so far. However, despite all that, I still plan to read Chasm City, The Prefect, and House of Suns, because you never know, we might still hit it off eventually.
Of note, John Lee narrates this and most of Alastair Reynolds’ other books, and he has a dignified but dry British delivery, a bit like a Shakespearean actor who has been asked to man the cosmetics counter at Harrods, but certainly very competent. I make sure not to blame the content on the narrator.