Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Thoughts on Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space

Science fiction is a very exciting thing. Just ask the BBC after a Doctor Who Christmas special. The thing is, there's a dashed lot of it, and it comes in all sorts of hotly debated shapes and subgenres. At one end you have the grim, comparatively realist dystopian style that wins literary plaudits and tends to get a lot of librarians insisting that there's nothing sci-fi about it at all, because there aren't any aliens or spaceships. See 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Farenheit 451 and so on. Typically it will be the future, but although there'll be slightly fancier televisions and doors will be complicated, the world will be recognisable. The speculative part comes from the absolute mess somebody has made of human society. You don't need to bring in galactic ghouls to make the next century look a bit manky.


Then, right at the opposite end of the scale you have big, noisy space opera, full of flashy bits of technology and creepy stuff hiding behind stars: things that go bump in the universe. Star Wars as opposed to Blade Runner. It's a bit glittery and spangly, but also kind of cool. There can be spaceships with unfeasibly big engines, beasties with more limbs than strictly necessary, and it's not unheard of for planets to explode. For a long time this side of sci-fi consisted almost exclusively of complete tosh, but recently it's been dragging itself back into the limelight. I did have a theory about how this was chiefly due to Scotland (Iain M Banks, Ken McLeod, some others I haven't read (yet)), but I've just found out that Alastair Reynolds, despite his name, is Welsh, which scuppers that plan. 



Space opera
First, this isn't quite my bag, as far as futuristic ramblings go. I tend to prefer to remain earth-bound (or at least earth-like-alternative-world-bound) because often it's easier to make good literature out of something recognisable. The tendency is for a wilder, more distant future to make its characters less believable (because they have mechanical limbs and computers in their brains), more shallow (because they tend to give expository speeches explaining to the reader just why their ship can go faster than light), and, crucially, less emotionally resonant (to use a vague term), because their motivations are more obscure. We don't recognise their societies, so we don't recognise their humanity. 

Obviously this is generalisation, and the point is that good space opera transcends this. Probably the best example is Iain M Banks' magnificent Look to Windward, which manages to take a furry three-legged giant alien and an incomprehensibly clever computer and make them into tragic, psychologically scarred figures that reflect on cultural (and Cultural) imperialism and military interventionism. In other words, the sort of thing you can drag out the pompous lit-crit words for. 

Also, sometimes I just really feel like reading something with a bit of astronomy knocking about in the background. That's what brought me to Revelation Space, which I will now actually talk about. Promise. 

Revelation Space
On the whole, it's good, but it hasn't turned my view of literature or genre or spaceships inside out. There are three separate narratives: one follows Dan Sylveste, monomaniac archaeologist/scientist with a thing for dead alien cultures; the second tracks Ana Khouri, token assassin (they must have a good union - there really are far too many of them in sci-fi and fantasy) manipulated into trying to bump someone off; and the third deals with Ilia Volyova, one of the three not-terribly-friendly bods in charge of the lighthugger (which roughly translates as 'big fuck-off spaceship') Nostalgia For Infinity. 

These three segments are gradually bound together by some galactic mysteries involving a buried alien culture, the Amarantin, which was wiped out by something that's actually described as 'The Event'. Ouch. Not so snazzy so far, is it? 

Fine things 
Occasional grubby old tropes aside, though, the plot and setting hold together well. There is a constant barrage of surprises and tricks, and it manages to gradually reveal plenty of clever, unexpected ideas without resorting to a single big twist or too many cheap tricks (although there are a few clumsy parts where the characters know things but hold them back solely to surprise the reader later on). The title feels pretty appropriate. 

As an added bonus, the various cosmic oddities and mysteries are pretty darn convincing, as well as strange and fascinating. There's science behind the fantasy, but it's unobtrusive and interesting, rather than equation-packed showing off (see Neal Stephenson, Anathem). The book's pretty good at dealing with the cultural and historical elements of its futuristic society, too. When presenting something bizarre like the melding plague, or the hermetics (two of my favourite bits of background), Mr Reynolds is happy to mention them briefly and let the reader work out the details for themselves. This avoids having to dump in pages of dreary expository material, allowing characters to treat their world as if they really live in it (we don't go around constantly explaining the meaning of things we take for granted, do we?), and also engages the reader with the world. This is a clever approach. 

So the plotting and structure are pretty hot stuff, overall. The three arcs join together in a satisfying and entertaining way, and the prose is fairly rock and roll, too. There are some splendidly atmopsheric scenes and settings, my favourites being inside the Nostalgia for Infinity (not a pretty starship - think The Nostromo from Alien), the surface of Resurgam, and Chasm City. All of these manage to combine the recognisable and the unrecognisable, and that makes them intriguing. 

Wonky bits
Sadly, there is some ropey characterisation. The shonkiest bit is the alleged love between Sylveste and his wife, Pascale. They have a couple of conversations about their work, then suddenly they're deeply in love and getting married. Similarly, there are a few minor crew members on the lighthugger who became fairly interchangeable, and ultimately only seemed to exist to be bumped off in interesting ways. 

Occasional over-long explanations, particularly of space itself and the movements of planets and systems. It was sometimes murky and confusing, but I suppose that's the universe for you. Having said that, some of it did end up being quite deviously plot-relevant, so it's hard to be too critical. Interesting thing to think about in writing, though - how can a setting of such near-infinite vastness be described in a way that feels relevant to human characters and readers?

Concepts and themes and so on
Revelation Space is part of a series, and I enjoyed it enough to be willing to check out some of the others. I wasn't stunned by its amazingness, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and that's enough for me. After all, the first Iain M Banks Culture book is eclipsed by the later ones, so that might be the case here, too. 

I keep mentioning Iain M Banks, and not just because he's the space opera dude I am most familiar with. I also bring up his work because it is an intriguing contrast with what I've seen so far of Alistair Reynolds' creation. The Culture is pretty high-concept: to put it flippantly, utopian communists run the universe. You can think of each book as throwing a new challenge at the ideal society and seeing how it deals with it. 

In comparison, I'm not sure how much there is a Big Theme behind Revelation Space. One emerges near the end (the Fermi paradox), and I'm interested in seeing how important it is to the rest of the series.

Also, here, far from the shiny AI-driven merriment of the Culture, things are a bit more of a mess. Human society is splintered, divided, and often at the whim of more powerful forces it doesn't really understand. Many of the fabulous bits of technology the characters employ are in some way turned against them. I really liked the way this was done, actually - it was often fairly subtle, but it works as a pleasing commentary on the way we, as a species and as individuals, are both strengthened and weakened by gadgetry. This is a major preoccupation of sci-fi (should the techno-wizardry be the cause of or the solution to the problems faced by the characters?), and Revelation Space deals with it jolly well. 

So yeah, good stuff. 

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