Simon's Reviews > Revelation Space

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
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Apr 18, 10


“Revelation Space”, first published in 2000 and shortlisted for the BSFA Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is the first novel written by Alastair Reynolds. Set in the Revelation Space universe, it is the first book in a trilogy.

It’s the 26th century and humanity has slowly expanded into space, colonizing worlds, exploring nearby star systems and inevitably splintering into different factions, some of which are at war. There are some strange and intriguing entities in “Revelation Space” such as the Pattern Jugglers and the Shrouders, but space is nonetheless a very lonely and empty place, too empty. Remnants of long extinct civilizations have been discovered, but there is no sign of living intelligent extraterrestrial life. A mystery that is at the core of the story.

On Resurgam, a planet on the outskirts of human expansion, Dan Sylveste is leading a team of archaeologists excavating the remains of the Amarantin, an extinct 900,000 year old civilization that was wiped out by a cataclysmic event. Aboard the decaying Nostalgia for Infinity, a ship capable of interstellar travel at near light-speed, Ilia Volyova and her crew of ultra-humans are searching for Dan Sylveste, because they believe he will be able to help cure their captain of a deadly technological plague. In Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone, the contract assassin Ana Khouri is hired for a job she hopes will lead her to her long lost husband but she needs to find a way aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity.

Alastair Reynolds weaves with skill the stories of these three groups of unpredictable characters, each having their own motivations and goals. Their interpersonal relations are filled with maneuvering, machinations, subterfuge and conflict, their backstories adding even more layers of complexity. Khouri and Volyova are two strong female characters whose backstories and viewpoints I thoroughly enjoyed. Dan Sylveste on the other hand left me ambivalent and felt like a weaker character until the middle of the book, I just wanted to get back to Khouri and Volyova. While the jumping around between characters and timelines in the beginning means the story starts out fairly slowly, it also means you have time to take in the vastness in scale and time of the universe Alastair Reynolds has created. The pace definitely picks up as the the story progresses and builds into a page-turner you can’t put down.

The weakness for me lies in the way that Alastair Renolds sometimes handles the information he gives the reader. At times he makes the characters withhold information or revelations from the reader at the time of discovery to be able to reveal them when he wants. Other times scenes feel like they ended abruptly, just when the reader was about to learn some information vital to unraveling the mystery. There are also big infodumps that sometimes cut into the tension of the story towards the end and could have been handled better.

This being hard science fiction, the laws of physics apply, which means there is no such thing as faster than light travel, something that writers often rely on as a crutch when writing space opera to make their stories work. Here however, Alastair Reynolds manages to use this and other limitations to his advantage. An astronomer working at the European Space Research and Technology Centre at the time of writing, his knowledge of physics and astronomy is infused in this book and lends it a real sense of believability, even plausability. The parts of the book where his passion for science blossoms into vast speculation or mind-bending constructs are very strong. His ability to weave real science into his story really captured my imagination.

The general atmosphere of the book is definitely bleak and oppressive, especially aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, it all feels very Lovecraftian. There is always a sense that something unknown and dangerous is lurking in the darkness, both on the ship and in space.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite its weaker points, there are more than enough big ideas and vivid visuals here and some brilliant prose to make up for them. It’s definitely one of the best first novels I’ve ever read, truely epic. After finishing this book, I dove straight into its sequel, “Redemption Ark”.

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