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  • TITLE: Revelation Space
  • AUTHOR: Alastair Reynolds
  • AWARDS: shortlisted BSFA & A.C. Clarke


    “I've never extrapolated anything this convoluted”

    —The Mademoiselle

    (Ace hardcover edition, ISBN 0441008356, c.2000, p.149)


    Ever heard the phrase, “. . . everything but the kitchen sink”?

    Well, the main stage—hereto known as the “everything”—for this opera is the starship Nostalgia for Infinity, affectionately called a “lighthugger” for its stellar-speed drive built by a mysterious race named The Conjoiners, who, apparently, left them around the universe like abandoned McLaren F-1s with the keys in the ignition. It is a marvelous fictional invention: the size of a city, yet managed by a few when they're not in “reefersleep”, this nano-tech, cyber-structured, self-replicating-of-anything ciphership is filled with huge, abandoned sections, a gunnery containing “hell-class weapons” (p.366) powerful enough to blow a planet, a very active contagion called The Melding Plague turning the interiors and machinery into Silly Putty along with The Captain, who was brain scrambled by the Pattern Jugglers—“world-sized . . . vast informational sponges” (p.83) that re-arrange your synapses for obscure reasons—and is now “glittering and uncomfortable mucoid” (p.179) somewhere in the ship's bowels. You see, the “everything”, directed by the supposed villain Ultra Triumvir Sajaki who is described by an adversarial crewmember as “a megalomaniac” (p.322)—but I think she's being way too superfluous in her judgment, and, shhhhh, it isn't even Sajaki!—is on a quest to fix itself, until it incorporates a scientist-politician-philosopher-engineer-archaeologist named Sylveste, who, with the threat of a nuclear bomb embedded in his mechanical eyes, re-defines the mission to discover—guess what?—the Kitchen Sink. Did I mention Sun Stealer, essentially a software program that takes over “everything” and also knows all about the mysteries of The Sink but ain't talkin'?

    I've pretty much jumped ahead to Acts II & III here, but don't skip Act I, because it introduces you to the fascinations and frustrations to come. In this, his first novel, author Reynolds starts you in medias res on a three-prong scramble of un-related storylines, fills you up with techno-jargon, societal lexicon, and conceptual mumbo-jumbo from a universe conceived so far into the future that any continuity questionings can just be hurled into the Cornucopia of Literary License. Then, while you forge forward with brows furrowed, he backstories with — boom! —The Ol' Info Block Dump just in time to forestall bailout. Quite frankly, it is an amateurish use of a legitimate writing technique that he alters and uses again in Act II & III. This time, his third-person omniscient narrators—we're supposed to be ridin' on their shoulders overseeing, right?—withhold critical information not from other characters, but from its nail-biting and still-confused audience for no other reason than to create Misssstery An' Susssspense. Chapter after chapter ends like the drop of a club foot. I felt soiled.

    Act III winds down with a boxcar-like string of climaxes only bested by possibly Jackson's inability to end his version of The Lord of the Rings. Funny thing is, I did enjoy the ride, I really did, really. But, although there's these worked gems of delineation—“she was like an origami sculpture of a woman folded from razor-sharp paper” (p.263)—characters feel incongruous and unfinished. Of the three main personalities—Dan Sylveste, Khouri, and Ilia Volyova—Sylveste, the intellectual piledriver, isn't even his own man. Well, that's a maybe, as he's possibly clone-created and carries a beta-level simulation implant of his long-dead father to confer with on scientific matters between hissy fights. The relationship with his newlywed Pascale Dubois—who has no face I can conjure, but is the daughter of the leader of the insurrectionist greenies in antithesis to her husband—is about as heartfelt and intimate as a chromium bolt. He's more a force of pursuance than a person. Khouri, the ex-soldier who we meet murdering people who have asked to be assassinated for sport, has already got another voice in her head with veiled, clandestine motives, even before she boards “everything” and receives “loyalty implants”, and another sentient software entity sneaks into her cranium to hopelessly stir her to motivational mush. She's a convenient post-a-note repository for the author's ideas and plot inter-antics. Besides, she's too much of an emotional toadstool to be the heroine, which leaves the Ultra—a distinction of chimerical humans addicted to spacefaring, “evidenced by their tendency towards . . . flaunted body augmentations, swathes of black leather and acres of glinting jewellery, tattoos and trade-trophies” (p.68)—Triumvir Ilia Volyova. She's the Russkie mega-engineer; keeping the ship functioning one step ahead of the “infectious alien mind parasites” (p.413), murderous, mechanical janitor rats, the malignant Melding Plague turning “everything” to fungal goo, and, dearest to her heart, creator and taskmistress of “Byzantine engines of war” (p.357) that no one's quite sure how to employ. There's nothing else in her head but a God-forced split personality, for, you see, when we first meet her, she's looking to shanghai a naïve recruit to replace the one she's murdered because he didn't follow orders. Later, she fakes slaughtering an outpost of colonists when it's more economical and efficient just to flatline them. Her actions and perceptions introduce Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, yet the author wants her to be Ellen Ripley of Aliens. No matter what, she's an ice-cold killer guided by the practices of an indifferent universe, and an impenetrable persona about as easy to warm up to as T-X from Terminator 3.

    This alluvium of babble—affectionately now called “my postmortem review”—is willfully sewn together with confusing and out-of-context plot threads to emphasize Reynolds' overactive sub-plots, storylines, backstories, explanations, minor and major character histories, ideas, notions, and directions plus inadequate layman science sketches (he's an astrophysicist with a PhD in astronomy) that he's quilted together with questionable and unmastered prose techniques. He's a strong writer with a hyper-drive imagination, just an undisciplined one. I'd recommend reservations before leaving Chasm City with these doodles, which, incidentally, is the title of his second novel existing in this same universe and a far superior read. In fact, it was the noirish haunting of its remembrance that turned me back for further exploration. Even though there are now a half a dozen more expeditions into this world, Revelation Space has cured me of any additional adventures.


    © copyright 09/01/2008 by Larry Crawford

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