Revelation Space

by Alastair Reynolds

Cover image

Series: Revelation Space #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 2000
Printing: June 2002
ISBN: 0-441-00942-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 585

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Sylveste is, first and foremost, an archeologist, investigating the sudden and catastrophic end of an alien race nearly one million years ago. He is also several other things that he doesn't talk about. Volyova is one of the crew of a lighthugger, an interstellar ramship in a universe without faster than light travel. She has quite a few problems, from a captain with a serious nanotech infection to a cache of weapons that she can't quite figure out how to use and which may well be driving people insane. And Khouri is an assassin in a grand game of human hunting since, frankly, what is there else for her to do?

I liked the main characters of Revelation Space, a complex and nuanced bunch with unique histories and motives. I found Volyova in particular a surprisingly sympathetic character, and several times in the story I found myself thinking I knew exactly how she felt. The weaknesses of the book are the pace, not helped by extensive internal monologues, and the frustrating spiral of an ending. One can tell that this is a first book; hopefully Reynolds will develop the knack for tighter editing and save his lavish description for the scenes that most deserve it.

Some parts of his world are fascinating, though, and deserve the memorable descriptions. The lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity, a nearly abandoned ship the size of a city, is hauntingly and beautifully introduced, with keen sense of place, size, and scope. I enjoyed his smart spacesuits, particularly the patter between the humans and the AIs running the suits. And while there are only a few glimpses of archeology in the book, I liked the bits I saw and wish Reynolds had taken more time to set up the archeological discoveries rather than letting the characters cheat and learn the solution to the puzzle through other means. This is solid, gritty space opera, describing a world torn between high tech and decay, a universe in which the interactions between computer viruses and nanotech have become the molds and plague of a technological society.

Unfortunately, the plot is at best erratic, and at times infuriating. The book suffers from a slow start, and although it builds up to a nice mid-book climax, it then plods through another slow section before building up to the ending. One learns quite a lot about the characters, but events just don't move along with sufficient speed.

Even more infuriating, one of the characters is given substantial information about the basic puzzle of the book about halfway through, but the reader isn't told the same information. Then, later, this information is related to other characters, and the reader again doesn't get the details. Then this happens again. And again. By the time that Reynolds finally let the reader in on what nearly all the major characters knew, it was almost the end of the book and I was growling in frustration.

I hate this plotting tactic. In a story told from a tight third-person perspective, I consider giving viewpoint characters information that is not given to the reader a cheap trick to artificially create suspense when the author can't figure out how to do it properly within the bounds of the plot. It causes all sorts of damage to the reading experience by making the reader aware of the presence of the narrator, annoyed at the author, and immediately more distant from the viewpoint character they're supposed to be relating to, because now that character is keeping secrets from them. It's a bad thing to do even for a few pages, let alone for that substantial a portion of the book, and it's made even worse in Revelation Space by the fact that the revealing of this information (which is a key clue to the puzzle the characters are trying to solve) is used to manipulate people into acting appropriately to further the plot.

The other place Reynolds lost me badly was with the ending. Overall, I think the last hundred pages succeeded admirably well at being a suitable payoff for the build-up of the story, fairly impressive given the high expectations the story created. The final revelations and denouement, however, left me completely cold. The very end of the book is not the time to introduce completely new elements into your story, and the final conversation could not have felt more artificial if the characters had been taken bodily out of the universe by the omnipotent author and stuck in an empty room to chat. Thankfully, most of this was just the explaining, not the climax, and none of it ruined the point of the book, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth that wasn't necessary.

There are clear openings left for a sequel, including plot elements that were never really used, and I liked the world enough to be looking forward to reading Redemption Ark. Reynolds does grand scale very well, and I want to see more of the Nostalgia for Infinity. But I'm afraid I can't recommend this one without reservations.

Followed, somewhat indirectly, by Chasm City.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-11-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21