Saturday, January 19, 2013

Re-Reads: Alastair Reynolds' REVELATION SPACE #OneBookAtATime

Oh, the memory of the chills that ran up and down my spine when my sweetheart-at-the-time handed me this book. I couldn't tell you whether the cover art or the title thrilled me more. And then to find that the contents were worthy of both! Suddenly I had a new favorite living science fiction author. And this was his very first novel!

That was ten years ago. And I've lost track of how many times I have re-read Revelation Space since. Each time, I get completely lost in the atmosphere of awe, and the intricate noir-ish plotlines of Dan Sylveste, a noir Indiana Jones in space, Ana Khouri badass military bee-hatch and assassin, and Ilia Volyova triumvir of the giant lighthugger spaceship, the Nostalgia for Infinity. To say nothing of the grotesque, baroque horrors of the Melding Plague, a hybrid of biological and computer virus that corrupts flesh and machinery in equal measure and, as its name implies, melds the one into the other, resulting in a captain that is becoming one with his spaceship, and a city full of buildings that have warped to resemble giant vertical pieces of driftwood. I mean, wow!

And the book holds up to multiple re-reads, both in its own right and as the first in a trilogy. As is so often the case with my favorite novels, re-reading only enriches Revelation Space. To read it for the first time is to be distracted into focusing on Dan Sylveste and his travails of leading a vast program of space archaeology and holding political power on a distant research planet, losing that power, and being induced to reveal his lifetime of staggering secrets. All of this forms the main plot of the novel, but it is the stories of Ana Khouri and of Volyova and the rest of the crew of Nostalgia for Infinity that continue onward in Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Sylveste's deeds and revelations are just what sets them in motion.

So this time, as Sylveste realized just how important the extinct alien race, the Amarantin*, are, and the greater theme of what came to be known as the Revelation Space Trilogy (coming up with a frankly chilling explanation for the Fermi Paradox) gets teased out, I focused more on Ana, whose story is frankly tragic: a soldier, wounded and temporarily cryo-suspended; shipped light years from home through a clerical error and separated from her husband, probably forever; manipulated first into acting as a sport-assassin for what amounts to a far-future reality TV show and then -- by two completely different parties -- into joining the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity. She is the only character to appear in all three volumes of the trilogy and its side-quel, Chasm City, but is kind of the Frodo of the piece (though she gets some moments; see below), mostly manipulated by others and only just keeping a piece of herself back -- though with such manipulators as she faces, that's probably quite heroic right there.

And our Frodo is thrown up against some of the most magnificently bitchy characters in all of science fiction: arrogant, selfish scientists (some of them acting from beyond the grave!), singleminded obsessive jackasses, would-be murderers with cosmic vendettas, sociopathic and psychopathic maniacs in charge of weapons that could destroy whole planets without even needing a change of batteries. The dialogue among these characters is just the best:
"You prick," Khouri said, spitting in the process. "You narrowminded, egotistical prick."
"Congratulations," Sylveste said. "Now you can progress to words with six syllables."
And this is before she has a plasma rifle pointed at her sort-of-ally's crotch!

And then there are the set pieces, which never get old -- the discovery of the ancient Amarantin city on the planet Resurgam; the Shadowplay chase through Chasm City and its "Mulch";  the unbelievably cool spacesuit-cum-shuttles by which Volyova and Khouri pull a Baumgartner to the surface of Resurgam: the vast baroque bulk of Nostalgia for Infinity and its haunting secret, which is also the secret not only of the Amarantin but of yet another and even more mysterious alien race from Sylveste's past. Like his fellow "New Weird" author China Mieville, Reynolds thinks big -- but Reynolds was a working astronomer, still at the European Space Agency while writing this book, so his weird is cosmic in scale and scientifically plausible. He hit me like a piece of space debris at hyperspace speeds and he's never disappointed me, as numerous entries on this blog demonstrate.

All that and he's a lovely bloke on Twitter. You'll probably hear a lot more about him from me this year

Also, check out this boffo cover for the Serbian (or Croatian?) language edition of the novel! Why couldn't this be the cover art for the American -- or any -- English language edition? It's even better than the one that originally gave me the chills! So much better. Look, that's totally Cerberus under attack by the bridgehead. The spaceship is maybe not as cool, but so what!

*And coming off of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men as I am, I couldn't help but imagine the Amarantin as his Seventh (Flying) Men. Hey, why not? It's my brain.


  1. I was delighted when I came across this book years ago. New Space Opera. I was enchanted.

  2. This is one of my favorite books of all time -- so happy to have come across your lovely review of a reread! I've been thinking about what to read next, and I think I'll embark on a trilogy reread myself. Thanks for the reminder!


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