Redemption Ark (2002) is the follow-up to Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel and the second book in his REVELATION SPACE series of hard SF space opera in which highly-augmented human factions encounter implacable killer machines bent on exterminating sentient life. The first entry had 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 some Lovecraftian elements for good measure. There were plenty of good ideas, detailed world-building and post-human technological modifications, but the characters were cold and unappealing, and the pacing was glacial.
Redemption Ark is the middle book of main 3-book REVELATION SPACE sequence (Chasm City and The Prefect are stand-alone novels set in the same universe), and unfortunately this book shares the same weaknesses as the first book, which is why I settled on a 3-star rating. Despite lots of promising concepts and tantalizing glimpses of the remorseless and powerful Inhibitors, the majority of this very long book (694 pages) is wasted on the protracted conflict between Nevil Clavain, a defector to the Conjoiners (telepathically-linked hive-mind humans who rarely act like it); Skade, a militarily-trained Conjoiner whose mission is to retrieve the “hell-class” weapons that have been stolen from them; Antoinette Bax, a Demarchist who allies with Clavain when he splits with the Conjoiners; Ilia Volyova and Ana Khouri, two carry-over characters from Revelation Space who control the Nostalgia for Infinity, a ship that has become fused with its captain John Brannigan after being infected with the nanotech Melding Plague; an autistic Conjoiner named Felka who comes in mental contact with the terrifying Inhibitors; and Galiana, the founder of the Conjoiners, who has been absent for decades on a deep-space mission but carries both an alien consciousness and (maybe, just maybe) some hints for human survival.
All the elements are here for a rip-roaring hard SF space opera, and perhaps with a much more ruthless editor this could have been possible, but instead we get a glacially-paced story much like the previous offering, where characters talk, debate, scheme, and speculate for about 70% of the book, with just 30% of real action and plot-progression. This is a common complaint of mine, but it seems like this has actually been SF readers’ preference over the last decade or two, based on the book length of hard SF practitioners like Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks. So perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I don’t see why brilliant SF ideas and characters can’t deliver a great story in just 300-400 pages. I often wish I was given remit to edit these books down to that length, travel back in time, and read the trimmed-down versions instead. Just wish-fulfillment, alas.
In any case, what I found most frustrating about Redemption Ark (besides the generally unconvincing distinctions between various classes of post-humans who all seem to think and behave fairly similarly despite their supposed differences) is that at least 300+ pages are devoted to an interminable struggle to get control of the “hell-class” doomsday weapons of mysterious origin. Supposedly made by Conjoiners sometime in the past, exact knowledge of who made them and how has been lost, what they can do is unknown, and no new ones can be created.
So as Clavain and Slade chase each other across known space, continually trying to wrest control of the weapons cache by subterfuge or force, the reader is left wondering what the point of all this is. After all, we know at the end of Revelation Space that the ultra-powerful and utterly-remorseless alien machine-intelligences known as Inhibitors are intent on destroying all sentient space-faring races, having successfully done so countless times over hundreds of millions of years. So it’s crazy that the various factions of super-intelligent humans hope that a handful of doomsday weapons can be used against them. But it doesn’t take advanced neural implants and hyper-intelligence to know that these weapons are as likely to harm them as a sling-shot is to destroy the Deathstar. But that is exactly what they assume, even as the Inhibitors begin some very-ominous terraforming activity in human-occupied space that are obvious preparations for wiping out the human vermin they have been alerted to.
There is also the matter of Daniel Sylveste, the scientist from Revelation Space who might have access to ancient alien knowledge that could help humanity to combat the Inhibitors. Well, despite almost 700 pages, we learn absolutely nothing about his fate. Ditto for the alien Shrouders and Pattern Jugglers, two fascinating species that play no role in this book. Clearly they are being saved for the final book, Absolution Gap, but I would have appreciated even a few teasers. At this point I am far too invested to give up, as I do want to know what happens to humanity against seemingly impossible odds, but I have little confidence that the final installment will improve on the weaknesses of the first two books.
I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by John Lee, who does most of Reynolds’ books. This time there were fewer scenes featuring characters with Russian or Eastern European accents, so it was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I took a number of very long walks to finish off this book, and chances are I would have given up if I were reading it in print form.