Having enjoyed Alastair Reynold’s Blue Remembered Earth last year, it was just a matter of time before I returned to the beginning. Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space, also marks the beginning of an original series, in which mankind is placed uneasily in an expanding universe, one that it is slowly starting to explore and comprehend, that contains remnants and clues to elusive alien species. Once knowledge is gained, though, it cannot be unlearned – man’s curiosity could cost it dear.
Revelation Space has a beginning that works magic instantly. The opening pages are set on a dig as a storm approaches. Archaeologist Dan Sylveste is investigating the enigmatic remains of an extinct alien species, the Amarantin, on the recently colonised, politically unstable planet of Resurgam. Sylveste believes that he is close to discovering the reasons for the Amarantin’s end and this drives him as an obsession. But the storm’s aftermath leaves him as a prisoner of a new regime, incarcerated in a cell, recounting his story and beliefs for some kind of corrupt biography being compiled by the new dictator’s daughter. But Sylveste is destined to not lose sight of his quest.
While Sylveste is the central figure of the novel, not least because everyone else is searching for him for some reason or other, he is not the only leading character. We also have Khouri, a female assassin who kills for the entertainment of Chasm City, who is hired by a mysterious, less or more than human figure, Mademoiselle, who has her own mission involving Sylveste. Then there is weapons expert Ilia Volyova, one of the Triumvirate that controls an immensely vast space ship Nostalgia for Infinity, who hires Khouri as their gunnery officer. The guns themselves defy human understanding – they are extraordinarily powerful and even susceptible to independent thought. All they need is to be infected and this is an environment in which the ship’s very fabric is cursed by a plague. This has now spread to the captain who lies there, effectively dead, in a pool of spreading, stinking ooze. The tiny crew has one hope to save him and that too is wrapped around Sylveste.
There are immense riches and rewards to be found throughout Revelation Space. I found parts of it mind staggering. The great hulking, empty, diseased vessel Infinity is brought to life vividly as is the character of Ilia who knows this mysterious ship better than anyone. Chasm City although only briefly included here (it gets a book of its own later) is brilliantly clear. Likewise, the strange and alien remains on Resurgam are as powerfully portrayed as the feelings of awe and wonder that are experienced by all who see them.
The mysteries and clues to those mysteries are likewise brain consuming. The Shrouders and Sun Stealer are just two of the frightening forces that lurk just out of our sight. Madness lies close.
Sylveste, Ilia and Khouri are fascinating creations. They’re not straightforward in the least and none are reliable as witnesses. Each has secrets to hide from the other and from us. They’re not always likeable, in fact they seldom are, but they are utterly determined and courageous. There’s an immensely strong sense in Revelation Space that events are taking place that are far more significant than any of the characters in it. Forces have shaped Infinity, they have created the weapons and they manipulate them, they have destroyed the entire species of Amarantin. Who and what are the Shrouders? What does Sylveste know? The stakes are huge and it’s quite clear that the consequences are mind destroying.
Revelation Space is quite a long book but it did not lag at all. It is addictive to read. It might have vast ideas and themes but it is not difficult. The novel is accessible and I can’t recall any so-called ‘info dumps’. I was a little mystified by the time leaps but that made no impact at all on how engrossed I was. I cannot wait to read the next book in the series, Redemption Ark – mankind has a fight on its hands.