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and now, for something completely different.

Revelation Space – Book Review

Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

I’d heard a lot about the Revelation Space books by Alastair Reynolds.  They sounded like something I would really enjoy: a good, well-written, modern space opera by an author who is also an astro-physiscist.  Great stories written by somebody who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to space travel.  Sounds great!  Turns out all the recommendations were right, this first installment was a great book; very gritty.

To get the books, though, was not easy.  My first instinct was to pull up the Kindle app on my Galaxy S and search it out.  Well, it’s available on Kindle, but not on Kindle in Canada.  So I started looking around in Calgary.  I tried numerous book stores and even used book stores, and nowhere could I find the first books in the series!  I eventually got them from a bookseller in the UK via Amazon Marketplace.  I got them for $2 apiece, plus shipping, which is likely a way better price than anywhere around here would have netted me.  Anyways, this is not about shopping, this is about a book, and my runaround was worth it.

Revelation Space takes place roughly 500 years in the future, at a time when the human race has ventured out into the galaxy using ships that travel near the speed of light.  They call these ships “lighthuggers…” they get very close to the speed of light, but not to it or past it.  This is one of the elements that makes this series different than other space-faring fiction.  A lot of the science of the Reynolds universe is based in modern theory and understanding of physics.  To get close to the speed of light, the lighthuggers use engines called Conjoiner Drives to gradually speed up and gain momentum until they are close to the speed of light.  When they are closer to their final destinations, they start to gradually slow down.  It’s not instant, and it takes a very long time.  No magical “hyper drive.”

This very physical aspect of reality also limits somewhat human ability to expand in our own galaxy within reasonable light-year distances as compared to human lifetimes (if it takes too long for you to get there, what’s the point of going because you’d be dead!).  Human lifespan has been extended this far in the future (counting 2 to 3 centuries for the longest lived), but not just through medical means.  Reynolds’ universe is very bound in general relativity, and while the lighthuggers are travelling the vast distances they cover at the massive speeds they reach, time slows down for them relative to other bodies not travelling at the speed of light.  By the time they slow down, more time has technically passed for the planet-bound than for the space-faring.  Add to that the cryogenic sleep that the space-faring place themselves in while traveling in interstellar space – freezing their bodies and slowing their metabolic rates to a near stand-still – and even more time passes in difference, physically.  People measure their ages in a couple of ways, physiological age and actual age.  Someone could have a physiological age of 60, but the actual time they have been alive might be closer to 200 actual years.

While humans have colonized the galaxy, the distances are so vast and the time to travel between locations is so great, that humans in different parts of the galaxy have developed unique subcultures of advancement as well.  For example, the Conjoiner Drives that power the lighthugger spacecrafts are only built by one subculture of humans called the Conjoiners… only they have the knowledge of how to build them.  While this almost racial differentiation between cultures seems to play a larger role in the second book in the series, it is established here in the first book.

Revelation Space is set up as a space drama taking place partly on a lighthugger, and on a planet named Resurgam.  It follows characters in both settings (and a couple others) as they follow their own paths, which eventually cross.  At this time in human history, our population has just recently overcome a great plague, which is referred to several times but never fully explained.  The plague seems to have been some kind of technological AI plague that was consuming much of the technology humans were enjoying.  The plague pushed our race so far back technologically, that the crew manning the lighthugger “Nostalgia For Infinity” really has no idea how many parts of their own ship works.  The ship, which used to carry hundreds of thousands of souls, is now crewed by less than ten.  Vast parts of the ship have gone dark or even wild, most of the crew knows likely less than 5% of their own vessel.  They are traveling to find a man named Dan Sylveste, the only person capable of curing their captain of the plague.

As they follow the clues (clues that they follow 15 years at a time) to where Sylveste is currently located, they travel past the planet of Yellowstone and pick up a new crew member.  The crew member is an assassin named Ana Khouri, and she has been set up by a mysterious employer to have the ship’s crew choose her as their newest recruit.  She’s been set up on this ship in particular because the employer knows the ship’s destination, and wants Khouri to kill Dan Sylveste for a reason the employer doesn’t wish to share.

As humanity spread out amongst the stars, they really expected that they would eventually run into other intelligent beings.  While they have found traces of other civilizations, they have always been dead traces of civilizations long disappeared.  On Resurgam, Dan Sylveste is a driven archaeologist studying the remains of one such civilization, the Amarantin.  He is following a path of clues to find out what happened to them.  Amarantin literature points to an event that happened 900,000 years ago that ended their civilization.  Sylveste is driven to find out what caused that event lest the humans that have colonized Resurgam end up suffering the same fate.

As their stories converge, a bigger mystery surfaces, all centered around what happened to the Amarantin.  It turns out to be something completely different than could have been expected, and has potentially dire consequences for not just the characters, but the entire human race.

This book is at once bleak, fascinating, touching, and immense in scale.  I really enjoyed in how rooted in modern physical theory it was, and appreciated its proximity to modern Earth (characters refer several times to things that have happened to them in their natives countries on Earth).  It’s interesting to look in the future at the technology that humans have built, and then look beyond that to a time when that technology becomes as mysterious to the inhabitants of the lighthuggers as the pyramids are to us.  I have done a really good job of not giving away anything of the full story, but hopefully enough to intrigue!  I really enjoyed this book, and am currently reading the second book in this series, Redemption Ark.

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