Some of them are more than capable of taking planets apart. Others .... I don't even want to guess. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of them did unpleasant things to stars.

-- Triumvir Volyova, on the Ultra ship "Nostalgia for Infinity"

Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds
480 pages
Published: UK, March 2000, Gollancz; US, June 2001, ACE books
Genre: Hard Science Fiction, Drama, Suspense
If you liked X you may like this, where X = Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Culture books by Iain Banks, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I often judge books by their covers. Contrary to the aphorism, a good deal of information can be gleaned just by examining the book from the outside. If you start with something as basic as dimensions, you've already noted that the book is thick, but not hideously so - a solid amount of reading. The subdued colors, combined with the simple theme - a very complex space vessel and the curve of a shaded planet, all on a metallic blue so dark that it appears a lustrous black, if there is such a thing - imply quiet thoughtfulness. The author's name is larger than the title, and all in small letters, e.e. cummings style; hmm, perhaps trying to draw people to the unusual name for his literary debut? The title itself is beguiling and intriguing, fraught with multiple meanings to the sci-fi fan. Below that, a laudatory quote from Stephen Baxter - even if it's meaningless, the choice of an already established hard sf author for the front cover says something anyway. The back cover adds some buzzwords: compelling, complex, intense. Finally, space opera.

So we have something which the publishers and the author consider clever, in a quiet, unflashy sort of way. Good length, tasteful and striking, stark but informative cover, clean layout, a few choice blurbs indicating space opera and hard sf. This appeals. I'll take it.

Inside you'll find a thoroughly well-imagined universe of humanity's far, far future. One not quite as advanced as Banks' Culture, but one just as full of intrigue and just as splintered into factions. One just as well-imagined as Simmons' Hyperion universe, but a far more gritty one, with ample room for backroom deals by shifty-eyed individuals. One that seems to involve a few individuals that have nothing to do with each other joining forces (well, sort of) against a foe more frightening than they have ever faced.

One of them is Dan Sylveste, the singularly driven archaeologist, determined to find out what happened to an extinct alien race, and more importantly, why it happened. Another viewpoint is that of a Triumvirate of technology-embracing Ultras, packed with cybernetic implants to help them navigate their giant starships in their unfathomable quests. The third is that of an unwilling inhabitant of of the astonishingly vibrant and wonderful Chasm City (or at least that's how the city was until it was devoured by a cybernetic-organic virus which virulently deforms any electronics it comes in contact with). They have nothing in common, but fate draws them together and has some definite plans in store.

What I enjoy about Reynolds' writing is that he takes for granted a certain level of his readers' knowledge and intuition (or at least mine). The concepts he presents are focused and straightforward, despite being quite alien at first look. Likewise, his character's motivations and behaviour patterns do not seem out of whack, and allow me to empathise easily. In essence, we are given enough background information seamlessly so that it flows within the story and at the same time lets us fill in the blanks left by lack of outright exposition.

The story presented in Revelation Space deals with Dan Sylveste's discovery, and its impact on several other factions of humanity. Some are directly impacted, and take actions to safeguard their existence; others just want Sylveste for his expertise in cybernetics; they become embroiled in his find quite by accident - at least at first. We get to experience the story from multiple points of view, and learn quite a bit about the main players' pasts - in the end, they all spiral towards each other as the stakes increase beyond anyone's expectations.

What makes Revelation Space not just a good read but an excellent one is all the background information about the rich universe. I wanted to continue reading to find out more about it, as it is exceptionally well put together. If you find yourself in a similar predicament, Reynolds fortunately had more to say about his universe. Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and the forthcoming Absolution Gap continues to explore it, in a more or less (mostly less, but occasionally more) sequelish fashion. Chasm City is more tangential than the others, however.

This node filled for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.

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