- Genre: Science fiction. Space opera
- Series: Revelation Space series, part 1
- Pages: 585
- My Rating: 8.5/10
It is no surprise that Alastair Reynolds turned into one of the most successful science fiction writers of our time, when you experience the quality of his first novel. Revelation Space entered the scene with a splash. A fully formed space opera, overflowing with imagination. It’s astonishing that this is someone’s first novel, because it reads like the work of a veteran author.
I was a bit hesitant to start with Revelation Space because in effect it means that I have to do the large undertaking of reading another handful of books to get the complete experience of this series. It was Reynolds’ break-out series in which he achieved early fame, before embarking on a couple of stand-alones and newer series. So, the Revelation Space series shows the author growing into his craft, and it is part of recent science fiction history. It’s canon, if you will, and a key series of the great space opera revival that started with Iain M. Banks in the 90s and was continued by Peter F. Hamilton. Reynold’s series is grimmer in tone and harder on the science than his predecessors’. Notably, his universe does not feature faster-than-light travel.
So, Revelation Space did not appear in a vacuum. It resembles most the Culture series by Iain M. Banks; even feels like an homage to it. The snappy assassin character Khouri and her dialogues with mysterious contractors seem lifted straight from Banks, as seem the names of the space ships. Some of the low-tech situations and locales also remind one of Peter F. Hamilton.
The novel starts out with three storylines that quickly converge. There’s the prickly archeologist Sylveste who’s digging up 900,000-year-old alien ruins, like in Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God (1994). There’s a cybernetic crew of an enormous space ship named Nostalgia for Infinity, which is coming Sylveste’s way, and a hired killer named Khouri who is recruited to be part of the ship’s crew. The plot revolves around the discoveries of Sylveste. How did the aliens die, and what significance has it for the human race? Despite, or because, of the lack of faster-than-light speed, the novel covers huge timescales and is not at all held back in its scope.
It’s not a terribly complex setup, but it allows Reynolds to explore many facets of his future universe, from space travel to robots, terraforming, AI, aliens and much more. The whole smorgasbord of science fiction topics comes along, making this a satisfyingly rich stew for SF aficionados. Because of the great distances in space and the time required to move between solar systems, the space crews are like a different civilization or a different race from the colonies on planets. This creates a lot of interesting factions and power balances in a human civilization that is increasingly spread out in the vastness of space.
At the same time, it is stuffed so full of ideas that Reynolds nearly loses himself in them. They threaten to overwhelm the story. And add to that that Reynolds insists of explaining every detail of whatever happens, and the story becomes a bit tedious now and then. You’d wish that he would stop digressing about the finer details and just get on with the tale. It did feel a bit long.
Reynold’s prose is never extraordinary or beautiful. It’s always just adequate for the job, ok-ish. In a way this is a shame, because the universe he creates is a ready source of miracles and he could have used his prose to further enhance that sense of wonder, but he doesn’t really. He’s a bit too descriptive, which makes his writing feel a bit mechanical at times. And I’ve found this to be the case too in his later books, so he won’t change in this regard.
It’s a cool story that still feels innovative two decades later, and it weaves its plotlines together well, even though it is overstuffed and occasionally makes strange jumps. Especially the space ship Nostalgia for Infinity and its crew is a memorable creation. This is one of the better space operas of the last two decades.