Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

revelation-space-by-alastair-reynoldsGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Lalith Vipulananthan

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If nothing else, Alastair Reynolds deserves credit for audacity. Having honed his skills in the short-story arena, he didn’t beat about the bush with his first full-length novel and laid down an impressive quarter of a million words. Needless to say this epic size is matched by a suitably epic scope but the innovation within is not quite enough to balance out the flaws.

Revelation Space’s grand space opera has led to suitable comparisons with other hard SF exponents such as Peter F. Hamilton and Stephen Baxter and these are well-founded. Even though Reynolds confesses to borrowing many of his ideas from other authors, he manages to make his own world building and scientific extrapolation interesting and distinctive. Hard SF demands rigorous physics and this is present and correct, but it’s Reynolds’ little flourishes that make Revelation Space stand out. However even a basic summary would give away too much, so instead be prepared for galaxy spanning hijinks, ancient alien artifacts, decaying technology, extinction-level events, xenoarchaelogy, and the end of humanity as we know it, or not.

Reynolds confesses to not being able to write simple stories and this is immediately apparent. Revelation Space is full of interweaving threads which gradually reveal the complex backstories of the three main protagonists. The three are initially separated by time and space and their inevitable drawing together is dragged out over half of the book, due to Reynolds’ refusal to implement faster-than-light travel. In another situation this insistence on real-world physics would be admirable, but here it skews the structure of the novel such that it consists of an overly long introduction, a slow progression into the real story, then a sudden rush into an insanely taut few chapters and finally a physics info-dump that kills all of the tension. Much of the complexity in the setting up of the main plot is frankly unnecessary. Reynolds throws away ideas like pennies and though it can be seen that Reynolds is laying the foundation for further tales in the Revelation Space universe, in the novel itself this merely serves as padding.

The characterization that might have smoothed over these rough edges is unfortunately lacking for the most part. Other than the obsessively driven Dan Sylveste, all of the characters are fairly one-dimensional and grey and this is an area where Reynolds needs to drastically improve. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are several moments when a character finds out the grand secret of the book and this is promptly concealed from the reader. Aside from serving no purpose whatsoever, this is a very nasty trick on the part of the author and only causes impatience and eventually extreme annoyance.

Bizarrely enough, even with all of these faults, Revelation Space remains a very readable book. Reynolds has ingenious ideas positively streaming out of his story and writes fluidly with a style that inspires rapid page turning. True, Revelation Space is rather bare when stripped of its many imaginative layers, but it is still a worthwhile read. If Reynolds can work out his problems with pacing and characterization, he will definitely be an author to watch.

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