by Alastair Reynolds
My tradition of "reviewing" things that are several years old continues with Revelation Space, the debut novel of Welsh writer Alastair Reynolds. It's a science fiction novel set in 2543-2567 AD, which rather disconcertingly skips back and forth between two stories that, eventually, manage to come together.
Dan Sylveste is the stubborn, egotistical leader of a scientific mission to the planet Resurgam. The mission has become more of a colony, actually, since a large portion of the original expedition pulled up stakes and left years before, feeling that there was nothing left to learn about the Amarantin, an intelligent race nearly a million years extinct thanks to a suspicious solar flare.
Sylvestre is adamant that there is something vital to be learned from the Amarantin -- something important for humanity, though he's not sure exactly what that might be. His fanaticism has blinded him to a new and growing opposition in the colony and he soon finds himself a prisoner after a coup removes him from power.
Meanwhile, ten years before that, a ship called Nostalgia for Infinity is searching for ... Dan Sylvestre. But thanks to that pesky speed of light, they are just arriving at Yellowstone -- a planet Sylvestre left nearly 30 years before that. Ilia Volyova, one of the ship's "triumvirs" (three officers of supposedly equal rank below the captain), is having trouble getting her new gunnery officer acclimated to the job.
"Trouble," here, means that the mental link to the gunnery drove him completely psychotic, raving about something ominously called the "Sun Stealer" and trying to kill Volyova, forcing her to kill him instead and cover it up.
Nostalgia for Infinity definitely needs to find Dan Sylvestre, for reasons that eventually become clear, and they pick up a new gunnery officer in the form of Khouri, a former soldier turned professional assassin who has her own secret agenda: Kill Dan Sylvestre.
This storyline then follows the increasingly disturbing trek of the Infinity to Resurgam, in search of Sylvestre, while the former storyline picks up with Sylvestre, after several years under house arrest, and, through the miracle of time dilation caused by traveling at a speed approaching that of light, the stories more or less seem to have a similar timeframe, despite years of actual difference.
Confusing? Yeah, but you get the hang of it around a third of the way through. It doesn't help, though, that sections from different characters' points of view are often separated by nothing more than a blank line.
Of course there is more to the Amarantin than everyone believes, and Dan is eventually vindicated in his obsession with the extinct race. But there are sinister forces at work, and no one character really gets all the pieces laid out for them until things have gotten rather out of hand.
Despite having a fairly intriguing concept, Reynolds definitely needed some editing here. While nearly 600 pages in paperback, the book could easily lose 100 of those pages by removing segments where characters basically explain to other characters things that the reader already knows. This happens with irritating frequency in the last third of the novel, as the disparate story lines finally converge.
Conversely, Reynolds practically skims over some intriguing points, particularly the identity (and nature) of Khouri's mysterious employer and the discovery of a wrecked starship. This is somewhat frustrating, given the number of pages dedicated to decidedly less interesting bits.
While Ilia Volyova, Khouri, and the rest of the crew of Infinity are pretty interesting characters, Sylvestre, despite ostensibly being the novel's "main" character, is less so. He is inconsistent in his attitudes and other characters treat him in vastly different ways. He's supposed to be an arrogant genius, but the genius part is mainly displayed by people referring to him as such, rather by anything he actually does.
Likewise, Sajaki, an enigmatic and threatening member of Infinity's crew, seems to scare everyone he comes in contact with, but when push comes to shove, there is nothing there. His character is apparently 95% public relations.
Published in 2000, Revelation Space received pretty good reviews, particularly for a first novel, and, despite my criticism, it did have a lot going for it. I looked up Reynolds on Wikipedia and was pretty impressed to see that he's published seven novels so far. That's one a year from 2000 on. I'll probably look up some of his other works, since even halfway decent "hard" science fiction is pretty scarce.