Absolution Gap completes the Revelation Space sequence. Therefore, tread no further unless you want to hear more of the horrors that faced our protagonists in Revelation Space and Redemption Ark.
A generation after the events of Redemption Ark, ship Nostalgia for Infinity still rests in the curious, conscious seas of Ararat, many years’ distant from Yellowstone where the Inhibitors continue to destroy human life. Clavain has absented himself from the marooned colony while Scorpio, a hyperpig, acts as its ruler. Both are brought together by the news that a capsule has landed on the planet. On opening it they find memories of the past mixed with the first signs of hope, suggesting there may be a way after all to defeat the hungry black machine monster Inhibitors. The discovery demands they make a journey but before they can leave Ararat a great sacrifice is required. They must also wake up John Brannigan, the transformed captain of Nostalgia who is now much more ship than man, a presence that haunts the remote decks of this enormous vessel, frightening the crew who work to keep parts of Nostalgia still functioning as a spacefaring ship.
In another timeframe, Absolution Gap takes us to distant Hela, a world that orbits a gas giant that is able to do the unbelievable – it is able to disappear from sight, just for an instant. But this is enough to have attracted pilgrims and religious fanatics, people who travel on great caravans between mighty cathedrals that move below the orbit of the gas giant, always keeping it in sight, never even blinking for fear of missing one of its vanishings. Young girl Rashmika Els has run away from home, driven by something she can’t quite understand to reach the principal cathedral, the home of the prophet Quaiche. We are in the fortunate position of knowing a little more about Quaiche than his disciples do, including the fact that he is haunted by shadows, driving him to cross the Absolution Gap.
Absolution Gap moves between times and places, combining the continuing stories of familiar protagonists with the emerging and influential lives of new characters. There is a different feel to this novel than to the preceding ones – Absolution Gap is mostly planet bound, although it still contains scenes aboard Nostalgia, one of the most extraordinary and memorable of all science fiction space ships. We see less of the Inhibitors, although what we do see is terrifying, especially now that we know what they can do. The horrifying glimpse we are given of Yellowstone’s remains leaves us in no doubt of what these machines intend for all mankind. But in Absolution Gap, something is shown of the wider picture, of the other ancient life forms that may be out there. Mankind is possibly the least significant of the lot.
Much of the novel takes place on the mysterious and unforgivable world of Hela. Rashmika is a new principal character to the series and it is a joy to get to know her with all her strange ways, not least her power to always know when someone is lying, an invaluable gift on this world where everything has a price to be bartered. The cathedrals and caravans are vividly imagined. Religion has become grotesque on Hela, personified in the almost pitiable figure of Quaiche and his terrifying blood collecting surgeon.
For me, the outstanding characters are Scorpio and Brannigan. Scorpio knows all too well that he is not human, with all the prejudice that this entails, and his character continues to grow throughout Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. At times he is more human than anyone else but there’s no doubt that he suffers more as a result. As for Brannigan, by contrast, there is very little of the human left in him. During the series we have watched the captain progressively become as one with his ship, the victim of a melding disease that has afflicted much of human colonised space, holding back its progress. Brannigan is a ghost in the works, living in his own timeframe, at his own pace, on his own terms.
We are reminded of the past constantly. There are encounters with names from previous novels, including, I’m delighted to say, the loathsome Skade. But Absolution Gap also hints at a future, giving us clues to the role of the Inhibitors and mankind in a Galaxy that is even more mysterious and dangerous than could have been guessed at in Redemption Ark. Just as the Inhibitors always feared, when mankind began to explore space it opened doors that could never be shut again.
Absolution Gap is an outstanding novel, certainly my favourite of this terrific series. It is immensely rewarding, thrilling and moving, quite often tragic and even humorous in unusual ways. It is always thought-provoking and visually abundant. Above all else, it is a wonderful well-told story by an author whose imagination is irresistible.