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Revelation Space
Alastair Reynolds
Ace Books, 480 pages

Chris Moore
Revelation Space
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University. At present he works at ESA as a contractor.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Just about any review of Alastair Reynolds's work is bound at some point to mention "space opera" (see, I just did, and it's only the first sentence) -- I particularly like Paul McAuley's blurb on the back cover of Reynolds's first novel, Revelation Space, describing it as "gonzo cybergoth space opera." The typical space opera conventions are here -- interstellar travel among human colonized worlds, a menace to the universe, a hero on a quest, sardonic dialogue, one dimensional characters -- but Reynolds dresses them up with hard SF (he's an astronomer by trade) speculations about the nature of the universe without violating known astrophysical laws (e.g., no Faster Than Light travel), combined with the aforementioned "cybergoth" tropes of seemingly sentient artificial constructs and biomechanical prosthetic enhancements that blur the distinction between human and machine.

All of which serves to take the much, and perhaps deservedly, denigrated term of "space opera" to another level. Reynolds is working in similar territory as Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy, specifically in attempting to address the famous observation by physicist Enrico Fermi about the possibility of other life forms in the universe, since referred to as the Fermi Paradox: "If they existed, they would be here." Given the immense age of the universe, and with that the likelihood of advanced civilizations possibly even capable of interstellar travel, why is there so little evidence of intelligent life (at least as understandable by human intelligence) elsewhere in the cosmos?

While "sprawling" is equally descriptive of both authors' framework to approach that question, Reynolds sticks more or less to the conventions of the form (which is in no way intended as criticism). Three seemingly divergent narratives concerning the driven archaeologist Dan Sylveste, the hired assassin Khouri, and interstellar trader and weapons expert Ilia Volyova, come together through the competing machinations of mysteriously manipulative forces to discover what happened to the lost race of Amarantin and whether humanity will share their fate.

In getting to a denouement that, except for our heroes persevering over all sorts of calamities, is hardly typical of space opera, having more in common with William Gibson than Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., Reynolds does some vivid "world-building," although some of it gets lost by the wayside as the narrative propels forward. Khouri, for example, is contracted by the very people she is to kill in some sort of riff on reality-based television. Here Reynolds kind of loses his otherwise firm grip on things -- given the highly advanced human civilization he's depicting, the notion of "television," a word he actually uses, seems a bit archaic. Nor is it quite clear what the point is. While it provides a device to introduce the character and then whisk her off on her ultimate adventure, it isn't really essential or necessary and could easily be forgotten by the time you get to the last page. (It should be noted that Chasm City, where this particular scene takes place, is the title and subject of Reynolds latest novel, not a sequel but another story set in the same imagined reality, so the author can be forgiven for perhaps "setting-the-stage" here with incidental details that serve a larger narrative world-view.)

And, I guess because he is a scientist, you also have to forgive Reynolds for the occasional lapse of control when he writes such sentences as:

"After several million years of profligate energy-expenditure the star has exploded as a supernova, and in its heart, tremendous gravitational pressure had smashed a lump of matter with its own Schwarzchild radius, until a black hole had been formed."
Even if they know what a Schwarzchild radius may be, the ending may not strike some fans of the traditional space opera as satisfying. We're not really clear on who the "good guys" are -- indeed, the main characters are not particularly likeable or motivationally consistent -- and what they win in the end is intangibly defined. But when you're pondering the immense paradoxes of the universe and the underlying meaning of existence, even in the context of a compelling space opera, you have to face the fact that every revelation only leaves more space for questions.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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