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Revelation Space by Alastair ReynoldsUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMonumentally ambitious in that specific way only universe-spanning space opera can be, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space launched a massive future history to beggar the imagination. I have now read it multiple times, and it’s fascinating to me to look back and see just how much I had to get up to speed to fully appreciate Reynolds’ sense of scope. From initially finding the novel far too lumbering and pretentious, I have since decided Reynolds is one of my very favorite space opera writers, and it’s all because even from my first, flailing attempts at wrestling with this book as far back as 2002, as much as I felt I disliked it, I could simply not get certain passages and scenes out of my head. Years later I still could remember the opening scene in the archaeological dig on the lonely planet of Resurgam with remarkable clarity. The dark, eerie corridors of the vast starship Nostalgia for Infinity still brought haunting images to mind. Had I just missed something?

Revelation Space turned out to be a book I was simply not ready for until I’d reached a certain point in my own reading and reviewing journey. Yes, I still acknowledge its imperfections. This is an often ponderous epic. Reynolds has so many Big Ideas to communicate to his readers that he falls into the hard SF writer’s most commonplace trap: the infodump. Passages go on at g-r-e-a-t length to elucidate some aspect of Reynolds’ extravagant future. But there’s nothing anywhere that could be called bad writing. The complaint is more akin to that hilarious line from Amadeus: “Too many notes!” Clearly Reynolds’ universe is more important to him than his characters. So not only does the cast never fully reach the point of perfect reader identification/empathy, it seems that Reynolds knows it and couldn’t care less. It’s the big picture that matters to him. But if, in a manner of speaking, Reynolds can’t see the trees for the forest, you can’t deny that it’s an astonishing forest.

The story revolves around the quest to discover what led to the extinction of the Amarantin, a pre-technological race that once inhabited the bleak world of Resurgam, orbiting Delta Pavonis. Resurgam is now a human colony wracked by political upheaval. Dan Sylveste is the son of one of Resurgam’s founders, the infamous leader of the Eighty, the unwitting victims of a bungled immortality experiment. Sylveste is on the cusp of a crucial discovery — an Amarantin obelisk with engravings that hint at technologies this species should never have had — when he is unseated from power in a coup. He is only released after 20 years when his former rival, Nils Girardieau, requires his help in understanding the dazzling discovery that the obelisk has led to: a buried Amarantin city, encased two kilometers beneath the surface of Resurgam in a black sphere. 

Two other groups of players enter the stage. From the rather Ridley Scott-ish Chasm City, on a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system, we meet assassin-for-hire (this seems to be the job du jour of hot women in the far future) Ana Khouri, who is hired — well, conscripted, actually — by a mysterious wealthy dowager named the Mademoiselle to travel to Resurgam and, for reasons cloaked in obscurity, take out Sylveste.

Through plot machinations that, it must be said, are a bit clunky, the Mademoiselle forces Khouri to work for her with the aid of a rather implausible twist concerning Khouri’s long-lost husband. Then, Khouri infiltrates the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity, an unimaginably massive ship (“unimaginably massive” being the only level at which Reynolds thinks) whose skeleton crew of cybernetically enhanced human “Ultras” are journeying to Resurgam also to find Sylveste. But they aren’t looking to kill him. They believe Sylveste can help combat a mysterious viral plague attacking the ship’s systems and endangering their captain, Brannigan, who’s been in suspended animation at near absolute zero at little better than “brain in a jar” status. But why, Khouri wonders, is the ship looking for a gunnery officer? And where did it get all its gargantuan WMDs, some of which could probably take out whole stars? 

Before the characters all come together, Reynolds shows a deft hand at building cosmic mystery while slowly weaving thematic threads together. The Nostalgia’s previous gunnery officer went mad, raving to Ilia Volyova (one of the ship’s triumvirate of commanders), before she was forced to kill him, about some being he calls the Sun Stealer. And Sun Stealer appears to be the name attached to the sculpture of an enigmatic winged deity, not previously known to be part of Amarantin religious traditions, found within the buried city. 

Tied into all of this is an even more bizarre enigma, that of the unspeakably alien Shrouders, who maintain areas of distorted spacetime — the Revelation Space of the title — rumored to protect vast repositories of wildly advanced technologies. Dan Sylveste is the only human to have ventured into Revelation Space and returned alive. And what he learned there is a key mystery of the plot. 

All of these riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas sometimes, not surprisingly, overwhelm the narrative. It will be the patient, not easily daunted reader who will find Revelation Space most rewarding. (For one thing, we’re nearly 200 pages in before we get anything resembling action.) The narrative is non-linear in a way that sometimes lacks clarity, popping forward then back again over gaps of decades, and there are odd hiccups in plausibility such as the one I mentioned before. Most readers who choose to tackle this book may find it’s best read in small chunks. The meticulous, nearly obsessive attention to detail in this huge narrative results in a story that can be as daunting as it is compelling. 

Still, you’ll find a lot to like in those details, including hints at Reynolds’ disparate influences. Khouri’s career choice in Chasm City — she stalks clients who pay to be stalked, and it’s all captured by the media — has echoes of Robert Sheckley’s The 10th Victim. And there’s something about that buried city (not to mention the Shrouders themselves) that’s more than a little Lovecraftian. 

Finally, this book satisfies where similarly outsized epics don’t in that Reynolds is driving a focused plot towards a climax. (And what a climax!) Too many books like this commonly leave several unresolved plot threads gaily swinging in the breeze, leaving readers with the forlorn hope that all will be tied together in some distant future sequel. Revelation Space leaves plenty open for its sequel, too, but it doesn’t do so in such a way that it fails to satisfy its own narrative. 

Given that this trilogy’s second and third novels are even longer, I don’t get the impression that Reynolds’ self-indulgence is a thing he’s felt any particular compunction to rein in. But I have confidence he knows how to smooth his rough edges. And as writers like Simmons, Martin, and Hamilton have proved, there are ways to do Bigness well. This debut reveals a powerful imagination straining at the leash. And as we all hopefully would agree that SF ought to be, at its best, a literature of Big Ideas, to criticize a novel too harshly for embracing that — as opposed to falling back on shopworn tropes — seems churlish. Reynolds, in the end, trusts his readers to keep up. That’s not a bad thing, and it might even prove a revelation.

Followed in the trilogy by Redemption Ark, as well as Chasm City, a stand-alone novel set in the same future.