the Little Red Reviewer

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Posted on: August 11, 2010

 Reynolds opens this epic space opera of the destiny of the universe with Daniel Sylveste getting arrested on the planet Resurgam. The son of a wealthy scientist and famous for his archaeological research in his own right, Daniel is used to things going his way, often burning bridges faster than he can build them. He has spent most of his adult life researching an ancient and now extinct race of our galaxy, the Amarantin. Once upon a time, the Amarantin were a burgeoning race of intelligent flightless birds. They had culture, religion, a written language, and were about to discover space flight. and then, almost magically, almost instantaneously, they were gone. Sylveste has made it his life’s work to discover what happened to the Amarantin.

But a government coup is something he can’t buy his way out of. 10 years later, he’s still a political prisoner, but has befriended the man who took over the planet Resurgam, been allowed to continue his research, and is about the marry the lovely Pascale. The government of Resurgam isn’t as stable as it seems, and on the day of the wedding Syveste finds himself behind bars, again. The only person he can trust is a beta level simulation of his late father, Calvin.

While Syveste has wasted away on Resurgam researching his precious Amarantin, people from his past are desperate to find him. Volyova and her cyborg crewmates (known as the triumvirate) aboard the Infinity follow every lead at their disposal to find Daniel Sylveste. They believe he is the only person in the galaxy that can save their captain. Ex-soldier Ana Khouri infiltrates the crew of the Infinity, for it is also her mission to find Sylveste. She is going to kill him.

An obsessed archeologist whose data may save or destroy humanity, secretive and violent cyborgs in charge of ship brimming with alien weapons along with a desperately ill starship captain, and a mercenary who needs to complete her mission to save her husband, and time is running out. These are the ingredients for truly epic hard science fiction, are they not?

The beautiful job Reynolds does of presenting us with a believable future for humanity and our alien neighbors makes it doubly unfortunate that Revelation Space suffers from a killer case of the almosts. It almost kept my attention. the characters were almost interesting. the dialogue was almost good. It almost delivered. The bad guys were almost mean, the good guys almost smart and nice, the prose almost interesting. Buried under all of that chaff, are Reynold’s epic ideas about a force in the universe that once awakened, will destroy everything in it’s path, and the desperate race to stop it.

The plot mostly revolves around Sylveste and his rather submissive and useless wife Pascale, and the triumvirate and Khouri trying to survive their computer virus ridden ship while enroute to find Sylveste. Along with Khouri’s mysterious employer, The Infinity and its crew could be a novel unto themselves. The ship and it’s frozen captain are slowly being destroyed by a virus, the holds are full of alien weapons, and most people who try to plug into the weapons end up insane. How did the captain get this disease? Where did the weapons come from? Why do the cyborgs call themselves the triumvirate? I’m all for minimalism, but that excuse doesn’t hold water when the novel is 500+ pages long. I kept waiting for Reynolds to give me some background, to delve into some of the mysteries surrounding our characters. My wish was not granted to my satisfaction.

That’s not to say that Revelation Space isn’t brimming with details, it is. Just not about the interesting things. We get plenty of information on specific panels in the spaceships, people’s physical descriptions, and things like that, but very little of the epic descriptions of people and circumstances that make space operas, well, epic. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of this novel that shined. Just not enough of them.

As this was Reynolds’ debut novel, perhaps I should be a little more forgiving. I’ve read plenty of sloppy, funky debut novels, just to have the author come back a few years later with something really great. Anyone else read any Reynolds? is it worth it for me to continue with this series or try any of his stand alone novels?

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9 Responses to "Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds"

I’m reading a Reynolds book right now, actually. “House of Suns”. I’m about 50 pages in, and already I can see what you mean by the “almosts”. Stuff is happening, but I keep waiting for it to really grab me (I’m told I have to get to around 150 before that).

Here’s hoping it improves!

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Let me know how it goes. I want to give Reynolds another chance, I really do. I guess I just need the right title?

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The only Reynolds I have read thus far is the stand alone novel, Chasm City. It was amazing. Top notch space opera. Loved it. If you want to try Reynolds again, and from all I read about him it is definitely worth it, try this novel.

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Chasm City just went on the “to read in 2011″ list. I do want to try Reynolds again, and I’ve been hearing nothing but good things about his more recent novels. I think maybe he just bit off more than he could chew with his first novel?

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If you want to see how Reynolds can totally shine…read his short stories based in this world, GALACTIC NORTH is the anthology, all within the Revelation Space universe. It would appear that his strength is in short fiction. That said, I have both Chasm City and Redemption Ark to read yet. I, like you, enjoyed parts of RS bigtime, but agree that the stuff that was most interesting wasn’t the stuff spent the most time on.

Also, the characters from the second main book REDEMPTION ARK feature in my favourite stories from that anthology book (Nevil Clavain, Galiana and Felka)….The Great Wall Of Mars and Glacial (the first 2 stories)

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Red, I’ve just been coasting around the site and checking out your old reviews. I was interested to see this one, since I must confess that Reynolds is one of my absolute, all-time, shiny-eyed favourite authors :) so yeh, not exactly unbiased :D

Interestingly, I enjoyed the characters in RS a lot, and mostly enjoyed the dialogue too. I am a big fan of big-idea space opera, so for me this ticked all the boxes. Most of your questions get answered in the following two books (and Chasm City, which is officially a stand-alone but fits in the same universe). I agree that it was a bit frustrating to not know what the plague was, etc, but I more tended to the ‘intrigued’ end rather than the ‘exasperated’ end.

To see whether his writing grows on you, I would definitely recommend HOUSE OF SUNS, a stand-alone with an epic time and space scale but also some wonderfully drawn individuals (well, they worked for me!). Or, at a shorter length, get hold of GODLIKE MACHINES, because his novella – Troika – is one of the most wonderful stories I’ve read in a long time, and it’s quite different from these galactic-scale novels. (I would not recommend Terminal World, his most recent publication; I found it very disappointing.)

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I really am thinking I need to give Reynolds another try. Everyone loves him, so I must be missing something.

Godlike Machines sounds good, as does his other stand alones. thanks for bumping some of the older posts, btw! :)

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I think Godlike Machines has five novellas in it, and there wasn’t a single one that didn’t make me happy to be reading it :)

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[...] didn’t have much luck with Reynolds’ debut novel, Revelation Space,  it was an “almost” book for me. Almost awesome, but not quite.  So when Terminal [...]

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