Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
(Victor Gollancz, 545 pages, £6.99, paperback, published 10 May 2001. £17.99 hardback, £10.99 trade paperback; 475 pages; published 16 March 2000.)
"Revelation Space is set to break the barriers established by previous SF novels and become the book everyone is talking about ... The 80s had William Gibson, the 90s had Iain M Banks -- and now VGSF announce the new voice of the millennium... ALASTAIR REYNOLDS."
So says the publicity for Alastair Reynolds' long-awaited first novel. Such hyperbole invites conflicting responses, knee-jerk scepticism vying with pleasure that a promising author of intelligent fiction is getting the kind of backing normally reserved for potboiling fantasy hacks. All Reynolds has to do is live up to the hype...
Reynolds' short fiction first started to appear something like a decade ago in the pages of Interzone, since when he has become a regular on the short fiction scene. His stories tend to be big-ideas sf couched in thriller form, tales so dense with ideas and possibilities that I've long suspected that, good as Reynolds is as a short story writer, he was always going to be far more comfortable with the space afforded by book-length fiction. Revelation Space bears out this expectation admirably, although a little inconsistency in the pacing -- sometimes lingering for dumps of explanation, sometimes rushing breathlessly -- suggests the author hasn't yet fully made the transition.
The novel revolves around three viewpoint characters, their stories at first apparently unconnected but rapidly drawing together into a final headlong voyage of discovery.
On the planet Resurgam, Dan Sylveste is leading an archaeological dig that appears to indicate that the disaster which befell the ancient Amarantin race may have been self-induced. Drawn to explain the ages-old Fermi paradox (if aliens are out there, then why haven't we met them?), Sylveste thinks the Amarantin ruins may hold a vital secret, yet his investigations are threatened by imminent rebellion, both among his own team and worldwide.
Elsewhere, Ana Khouri is preparing for another day's work, another assassination. Khouri is an ex-soldier who arrived on the colony world of Yellowstone by accident: a clerical error during the chaos of a wartime evacuation consigned her to reefersleep on a starship which took her light years from all that she loved. Now she does what she does best, with a professional pride that marks her as one of the very best.
And finally we have Triumvir Ilya Volyova, a member of the three-strong crew in charge of a vast starship. Her jobs: to catalogue and try to defeat the creeping decay of the melding plague which affects the ship's captain, who is only kept close to life by freezing him at near absolute zero; and she is responsible for the awesome arsenal of weaponry on ship, enough to destroy worlds with a single command. Volyova and her crew are on a mission to find Sylveste's father, the only man with the expertise to save the Captain, and they will do whatever it takes to secure his services.
Revelation Space is strong where Reynolds' scientific background -- by day he's an astrophysicist with the European Space Agency -- bursts through in the novel's sweeping speculation, the breathtaking construction of his fictional stage and the awesome artefacts that form the pivots of the hard-science-fictional plot.
It's strong, too, in the jigsaw puzzle of mystery, plot and, appropriately, revelation.
...And in the vivid imagery used to convey both big science and neat gadgets: hard sf lends itself to startling imagery, but often fails to deliver. Reynolds has the literary tools to rise to this challenge, with frequent gems of descriptive prose, like:
"Her suit spasmed momentarily, flicking through a series of incorrect chameleoflage modes: space-black; snow-white and then florid, tropical foliage, making it look as if Kjarval were a door leading out of the chamber into the heart of some remote planetary jungle."
Where Revelation Space struggles is, as I've said, with occasionally inconsistent pacing. Towards the end, in particular, some of the big revelations about what is really going on are delivered in pages-long data-dumps, robbing them of their drama. The plotting, although painstakingly constructed and executed, is undermined by a tendency for viewpoint characters to conceal from the reader their knowledge -- of past events, of what is actually happening -- until it is the right point in the narrative to share their insight: we're not discovering with the protagonists, we're waiting for the author to choose to reveal, so that Reynolds is always lurking in the background, an extra player in the plotting game.
The rest -- the characterisation, the atmosphere, the prose style, all the other elements of fictional glue that hold a novel together -- tend towards transparency: competent, but neither eyecatching for their strength nor their weakness, leaving a novel that is stunning in many respects and merely good in most others. It seems vaguely disrespectful to say this of a writer who has regularly appeared in top short fiction markets for the past decade, but Revelation Space surely marks the beginning of a very exciting career.
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© Keith Brooke 27 May 2000