I’ve been planning to read this series for many years, because Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross and Iain M. Banks are regularly mentioned at the forefront of the British Hard SF movement. Sure, there are many non-British well-known hard SF and space opera practitioners like Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, and Hannu Rajiamieni, but it seems as though the Brits have had the upper hand in terms of numbers over the last decade or so. The authors typically have impressive scientific backgrounds to give their speculations credibility, having training in astronomy, physics, mathematics, mechanical engineering, computer programming, etc, much more-so than most authors in the Golden Age of SF. Science itself has come a long way since then as well, so it behooves the SF genre to evolve with it.
Of the new British SF Invasion members, I think Reynolds and Hamilton are the most prolific and prominent names, and most interestingly, I have been told that they are diametrically opposed in their tone and approach: the far-future universes of Reynolds are generally dark, pessimistic, and frightening places, where the humans themselves are so technologically advanced that they no longer seem human; in contrast, while Hamilton creates incredibly vast and complex galactic milieus, his human characters remain familiar enough that we can cheer for them. So I was told that if I have a pessimistic view of humanity’s future I’ll probably like Reynolds’ works, and vice-versa for Hamilton. Granted, you cannot categorize the works of most authors so simply, but enough fellow readers have made the same comments that surely there must be an element of truth to it.
Revelation Space is Reynolds’ debut novel, and the opening book in his REVELATION SPACE series of hard SF novels set in the far future, so it’s a natural place to start if you’re interested in his work. As a debut novel, it benefits from the enthusiasm of a new author giving voice to ideas they have been playing with for many years, but may lack the polished writing skills that may come with experience. Notably, the audiobook is narrated by John Lee, who does the entire series. He has the proper gravitas for serious space opera, but because several of the characters are of Russian decent, he gives them heavy accents that are difficult to understand at times, and get a bit tiresome during the 22-hour narrative.
Reynolds’ future universe, starting in the year 2551, is fully developed. Mankind has colonized many worlds in our part of the galaxy, but has not developed FTL technology, so star travel is frequently done while in hibernation (“reefer sleep”), and the level of cybernetic technology has split humanity into a number of sub-species, including Ultras (highly-augmented cyborgs) and Conjoiners (mentally-linked humans with hive-mind traits). There are also some very advanced and mysterious aliens like the Pattern Jugglers (essentially a sentient ocean somewhat akin to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris with a collective consciousness that can incorporate the minds of other species that come in contact with it) and the Shrouders, ultra-powerful aliens that have taken refuge in impenetrable shrouds of space that shred any that attempt to enter.
Unfortunately, humanity has also encountered the remains of many dead alien civilizations, which recalls Fermi’s Paradox of why we have not been contacted by other alien species despite the billions of potentially-habitable worlds in the universe. One of those races, the bird-like Amaranti, are the subject of study of our of the books’ main protagonists, Daniel Slyveste, who is an archeologist examing the remains of the Amaranti on the barren planet of Resurgam in the Delta Pavonis system. When he discovers a buried obelisk (with overtones of the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) that mentions a mysterious Sun Stealer god and signs of advanced technology that are at odds with their level of civilization, he seeks to learn more, but rival factions on Resurgam are opposed over terraforming of the planet, and a bloody civil war erupts.
Following the rebellion, in virtually the first action after 175 pages, Sylveste and his wife Pascale survive a surprise attack but have to flee into exile. So many details of this sequence recall the betrayal of House Atreides and the flight of Paul and his mother Jessica into the desert in Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, many of the complex and baroque details of Reynolds’ future universe reminded me very strongly of that classic SF epic. Paul McAuley has called the book “gonzo cybergoth space opera,” and that certainly captures its unique flavor.
Meanwhile, we meet Ana Khouri, a deadly assassin living in Chasm City who is hired to hunt down her own clients, reflecting the twisted ennui of decadent future societies in need of a thrill. If they can survive until a deadline stipulated in the contract, they can brag about this to their socialite friends. This reminded me of the decadent future milieu of Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE novels. Through an over-complicated plot involving the mysterious “Madmoiselle,” Khouri is forced to infiltrate the giant spaceship Nostalgia for Infinity, which is largely deserted and only manned by a tiny skeleton crew of cybernetically-modified Ultras. The ship is run by Illia Volyova, a weapons expert who has taken over because the Captain has been struck by a nasty cyber-virus that is slowing transforming him, so he is kept in deep freeze as they rush to Resurgam in the belief that only Daniel Sylveste can save him.
Having set the stage for some interstellar space adventure and intrigue in Revelation Space, Reynolds instead elects to pad the middle portion of his almost 600-page tome with layer after layer of intrigue among the cold, cerebral, and ultra-intelligent mercenaries of the Nostalgia for Infinity, very reminiscent of the cynical post-human characters of Peter Watt’s Blindsight and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. What is it with cyberpunk post-humans in hard SF? It seems de rigueur that as humans become increasingly wedded to technology and mods/neural implants, they become less sympathetic than ‘normal’ humans. This characterization was probably pioneered William Gibson, the widely-acknowledged father of cyberpunk. I think he has never written a single likable or sympathetic character in any of his novels, and that is a very deliberate authorial choice. Reynolds certainly subscribes to this approach, as do Watts and Morgan. Sylveste, Khouri, Volyova are not characters we can love, but they are certainly complex and deadly-serious.
The ship harbors a secret cache of extremely advanced weapons, so there is much intrigue about who controls them, what the Mademoiselle wants in relation to the ship and Daniel Sylveste, the loyalties of the ship members themselves, the real purpose of their mission, and what they will find on Resurgam. The weight of obsessive details really bogged down the story here, and its a problem that seems to regularly occur for massive hard SF epics — instead of forwarding the plot through a series of inventive set-pieces on various planets, we are stuck with 4-5 characters endlessly scheming and speculating, but nothing actually HAPPENING. It got pretty tiresome, even after they got Sylveste onboard.
At long last the story enters its final act, as the Nostalgia approaches a mysterious system called Cerberus/Hades, where an artificial satellite orbits a neutron star. Since our crew continues to struggle over control, with some out to assassinate others and control the cache of planet-busting weaponry, they elect to risk everything by landing the satellite and discovering the secrets it hides. Here is where the story got interesting again, as there are a flood of intriguing reveals that relate to the long-dead Amaranti and other lost alien races throughout the galaxy. Reynolds is of course setting the stage for future events that will be covered in the sequels, so Revelation Space ends somewhat anti-climactically but with enough teasers that I think hard SF/space opera fans will be sufficiently intrigued to read further.