Review of Revelation Space
I am not often one for contemporary science fiction–I typically read more “classic” work by authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. But a good friend of mine recently recommended Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space to me with full knowledge of my literary disposition, so I thought it might stand a chance to impress me.
Before diving into the novel, I wanted to do some research on Reynolds since I was unfamiliar with him or his work. Turns out Revelation Space was his first book, published ca. 2000. Being the science fiction snob that I am, I was a bit dismayed–far too contemporary for my taste. But I also learned about his background prior to becoming an author: PhD in Astrophysics at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. This level of expertise might indicate a great capacity to understand and construct a physically accurate universe. Thus I entered Revelation Space with mixed feelings: high hopes for a physically-compelling universe but unconvinced about command of literary devices.
The plot itself takes quite some time to develop. Reynolds spends a good deal of time establishing the exposition, building the societies and worlds in which the action takes place. While intricate and ornate with detail, pure universe construction can seem at times a bit mundane. Especially when following an archaeological dig in a desert. Imagine Indiana Jones with three additional plot lines and without Nazis or booby traps–this is essentially the first third of the novel.
That being said, the universe is exceptionally well-put-together. Every element is convincing, from societal normatives to time dilation. The feel is organic, gritty, with an intricate mix of high-tech and sociopolitical chaos. And the physics is astounding yet approachable and well-written, such as this description of the outer reaches of a star system:
The protective caul of the star’s magnetic field did not extend this far out, and the objects here were buffeted by the ceaseless squall of the galactic magnetosphere; the great wind in which the magnetic fields of all stars were embedded, like tiny eddies within a vaster cyclone.
Not only does this attest to Reynolds’ ability to distill complex scientific ideas like the electrodynamics of our galaxy, but it likewise demonstrates his command of prosaic language to produce vivid images of the chaos of space. He does not limit himself to scientific material, however, as he uses humor and references from his universe to depict action. One of my favorite instances is after a massive ship collides with a planet:
It looked like a biology lesson for gods, or a snapshot of the kind of pornography which might be enjoyed by sentient planets.
Once the plot itself began to take off, this sort of language served convey the innumerable plot twists and characters’ dynamism with wit and depth. Reynolds’ diction and scientific imagery made for compelling suspense that felt real without being especially technical (although the excerpt at the end of this post is an amusing yet educational exception to this rule). I was incapable of putting down the book once I hit the halfway point as the mini climaxes and character developments happened in brilliant succession.
What I found most enjoyable was Reynolds’ use of certain characters’ malleability toward their own moral compulsions to bring about a wholly unexpected conclusion, one which contained a powerful message about the ethics of scientific discovery–and indeed any discipline devoted to exploration. As our society grows increasingly dependent on technology and begins to reach for the stars, it should consider the moral dilemmas that Reynolds points out. Additionally, Reynolds explores the evolution of socioeconomic class systems during humanity’s move to other star systems, which provides intriguing insight into our current society.
While Revelation Space does have a rather slow start, sticking with the novel through the first hundred pages or so leads to an exciting plot with some rather interesting speculations about the future state of humanity and the nature of what we consider to be “alien” sentient life. Reynolds does provide an intriguing universe for the framework of this novel, one to which he returns in future novels such as Chasm City. If you are willing to be patient with the beginning, this is a delightful read.
A note regarding Alistair Reynolds:
As I was researching Reynolds’ background, I ran across the author’s website, which included a personal bio, a number of FAQs, and, oddly enough, an e-mail address. Feeling daring and adventurous, I sent him an e-mail asking about his work in astrophysics and the relationship that had with his writing. He was quick to respond with a personal message regarding his research, delighted to hear from an avid reader and writer who was also pursuing graduate work in astrophysics. He offered some advice on being a writer and a graduate student, which was nice and somewhat generous considering he probably hears from quite a few fans and aspiring writers on a regular basis. Through our discussion, we discovered that I work in the same field he did: X-ray binaries.
Neutrinos are fundamental particles; spin-half leptons. They come in three forms, or flavours: electron, mu- or tau-neutrinos, depending on the nuclear reactions which have birthed them. But because they have mass–because they move fractionally slower than the speed of light–neutrinos oscillate between flavours as they fly. By the time the ship’s sensors intercepted these neutrinos, they were a blend of the three possible flavour states, difficult to untangle. But as the distance to the neutron star decreased–and with it the time available for the neutrinos to oscillate away from their creation state–the blend of flavours became increasingly dominated by one type of neutrino. The energy spectrum became easier to read, too, and the time-dependent variations in the source strength were now much simpler to follow and interpret.