Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds

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Chasm City (2001) Book Review
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Set in the 26th Century, Revelation Space, the first book in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series (2000-2003), chronicles humanity’s colonisation of space, a precarious and disparate effort that is threatened by a space plague known as the Melding Plague as well as a mysterious, advanced machine civilisation. Revelation Space came second place for the Locus Best First Novel award (2001) and was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (2001).

The story weaves together three narrative threads. On planet Resurgam archaeologist Dan Sylveste is excavating the million year old archaeological remains of the Amarantin race. Ilia Volyova and her fellow crew onboard the Nostalgia for Infinity are trying to track

him down, as they believe that he can help with a cure to the Melding Plague affliction that affects the their captain. Meanwhile assassin Ana Khouri has been hired by the nefarious Mademoiselle from Sylveste’s home planet, Yellowstone, to infiltrate the crew of the Nostalgia and ultimately to assassinate Sylveste. The main characters end up forming a conflicted alliance though, and soon they discover that Amarantin technology known as the Sun Stealer has infiltrated the Nostalgia, a turn of events that awakens the alien machine civilisation of the Inhibitors, putting the whole of humanity at risk of extinction.

Reynolds’ universe is based on the premise of slower-than-light space travel, lighthuggers travelling within a fraction of light speed. This sets Revelation Space apart from works such as Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) and David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998). Reynolds is forced to adopt convoluted timelines, allowing for extended travel times, long periods of cryogenic entombment, and mind uploads that know no time boundaries. While Khouri for example arrives at Yellowstone in 2524, she only makes planetfall on Resurgam together with Nostalgia’s crew in 2566, which is some 70-odd years after Sylveste – who was born in 2351 – departed for his expedition to Resurgam. Extended periods of ship-time play even more of a narrative role in Reynolds’ Chasm City (2001), which follows a flotilla of ships which left Earth at a time when space travel was subject to a maximum speed of only a fraction of lightspeed, making for a 150 years long journey. Reynolds manages not only seamlessly to integrate the main events of short duration which are spread out over long periods of time, but he also uses the constraints to his advantage with his dark, claustrophobic and psychologically charged descriptions of ship life.

Taking a leaf out of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985), and in the best of postmodern space opera traditions, the novel explores a plethora of different sentient lifeforms and posthumanist offshoots. The logic guiding Reynolds’ posthumanist experiments seems to be based on Darwinian necessity, rather than some frivolous pursuit a la Zindell’s Devaki tribe, reminding us that deep space is a very hostile environment. Ultranauts such as Volyova and her crew for example are radically modified humans – mechanically and biologically – but only in so far that they are better adapted for long periods of interstellar travel. At the other end of the scale, animal species such as pigs have been lifted to sentience. Dubbed Hyperpigs they often perform more menial jobs. Humanity is only just waking up to the biggest danger of all, and while only little is revealed in Revelation Space, Sylveste and Nostalgia’s crew come up against the Inhibitors, a dormant race of machine intelligence, spread out through the galaxy, and which only seems to spring into action and reveal themselves when nascent star-faring civilisations reach a certain level of technological knowhow.

Reynolds’ universe is a reminder that progress does not follow a linear path. The Melding Plague to hit Chasm City, Yellowstone in 2510, put an end to the city’s Belle Epoque era of technological grandeur. A nanotech virus that infects and corrupts everything containing electronic circuits, from buildings to machinery and tech-heavy humans, the plague has turned Chasm City into a grotesque, nightmarish version of itself, one thing melded into another. John Brannigan, the captain of the Nostalgia, is perhaps the best example of Reynolds’ style. He is a highly modified Ultra, born 400 years prior to the events of the book, and as a victim to the plague, he has literally melded with the ship, pervading every inch of it, also in a ghost-like manner. Barely kept alive in cryogenic reefersleep, the crew occasionally heats him to communicate with him.