Absolution Gap, by Alastair Reynolds
Okay, I’m going to say it outright, this is a really long review, but it’s a really long book.
Revelation Space and Redemption Ark were both excellent books. The third book in a loosely connected trilogy, Absolution Gap had all the promise to continue the epic struggle of a human race both young and experienced in travelling the stars against an unseen enemy. The story continues where Redemption Ark left off, but that serves really only as a starting point – each member of this trilogy has woven a vastly different story (or set of stories) around the central overarching conflict. The third book is a conclusion, of sorts, but it really ended up feeling like a thematic shift from the first two books. Similar to the other two, however, the book connects several different stories taking place in several different times on different planets to a final showdown. In the first two books, the showdown was about survival; Redemption Ark’s showdown is about fighting back and coming out on top.
We start on an Ultra lighthugger called the Gnostic Ascension. As explained previously, lighthuggers are vast spaceships built by a branch of post-humans called Conjoiners that can travel very near the speed of light, though in the technological epoch of the books they can generally travel no faster: science and technology are still bound in relativistic theory. Conjoiners being one branch of post-humans, the Ultras are yet another. Ultras are very different from Conjoiners. While Conjoiners (as explored in Redemption Ark) seem unilaterally consumed with improving human cognition and performance through enhancement and collective work approaching a hive-mind (essentially, overclocking, hacking and networking the human condition), Ultras seem more consumed by making money and increasing longevity and individuality through modification/mutilation and replacement. So, where Conjoiners are the recluse scientists, Ultras are the opportunistic and pragmatic (almost fanatically so) wanderers.
A non-Ultra man named Quaiche has been contracted by the Ultra captain Queen Jasmina to prospect solar systems they pass by and find opportunities for making money. He hasn’t been doing the job to her satisfaction, however, and she is giving him one last chance to find something of value that can turn the tide of business for Gnostic Ascension, and he needs something really big. Jasmina is kind of into pain and suffering (far beyond sadomasochism), and her mind, twisted from her personal exploration of pain, devises a “motivation” for Quaiche – she locks Quaiche’s lover in a torture suit called the “scrimshaw suit” and sends them on their way in an Ultra shuttle to prospect in a remote star system.
Using a small exploration ship, Quaiche leaves the shuttle and discovers an obviously unnatural formation: a giant bridge spanning a massive canyon on a moon orbiting a gas giant. It’s an obvious indicator of a lost civilization pre-dating humanity’s existence in the galaxy. In the act of exploring it, he triggers some automated defense weapons and his ship is fatally damaged. On the verge of death, he experiences what in his mind is a miracle when the shuttle – which he had hidden on the other side of the gas giant out of weapon strike range as a precaution – rescues him from beyond radio contact when it hears his distress beacon apparently through the gas giant. Then gas giant seems to disappear to allow his signal to get through. In the act of saving him, though, the shuttle pulverizes Quaiche’s lover – still locked in the torture suit – with the high-g acceleration it needs to save Quaiche. So, he’s not too happy.
In another time, in another system entirely, the survivors of Redemption Ark are waiting on the mostly water Pattern-Juggler world of Ararat. They have been there long enough to form a colony, such that there are now people who were born on Ararat and who did not make the journey there on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity. That’s always been one of the neat things about this series: while there is a struggle for the survival of humanity, the adversaries move very slowly, spanning generations with each attack. Anyways, the survivors are hoping that another ship led by the Conjoiner Remontoire will join them, but have been unable to see anything coming into their vicinity. As far as they know, they are isolated in the galaxy and the inhibitors (from whom they were fleeing) don’t know where they are. Then, an escape pod splashes down on Ararat.
Scorpio, a pig-human hybrid who helped the escapees in Redemption Ark, seeks out Clavain, an ageing and self-loathing Conjoiner, for advice. After helping with the escape in Redemption Ark, the guilt-riddled Clavain has essentially become a hermit. Scorpio wants his presence and advice when the escape pod eventually opens up. The escape pod contains Khouri, another survivor who was travelling with Remontoire. She informs the colonists that the inhibitors do indeed know where they are, and that battle is raging all around Ararat. Nobody can see it because of the types of weapons both sides are now using. Unseen, undetected, and deadly, the weapons and engines that the combatants employ defy every law of physics that humans only to recently held for fact. Khouri tells them that it was actually her daughter, conceived under extraordinary circumstances and fathered by another survivor, implanted with Conjoiner implants in the womb, who gave humans the capabilities to create the weapons they are now using. The bigger problem is that another Conjoiner – Skade – has stolen the child out of Khouri’s womb, fracturing what should have been a unified human front. Khouri wants her daughter, Aura, back, and Skade has crashed on Ararat. In the process of getting Aura back, Clavain is killed.
The colonists’ lighthugger, the Nostalgia for Infinity, is an interesting ship. Because of a techno-plague, its one time Ultra captain has actually fused with it, essentially becoming the ship. It’s now more of a horror story on the inside than a ship, as it seemingly reshapes itself becoming what seems to be the new body of the captain. The scale is staggering though, as with the size of the lighthugger it is a body several kilometers long. Sleeping for decades, the Captain is suddenly waking up. Sensing the battle happening around Ararat, he’s also preparing to leave. The colonists and the central heroes are thus faced with a choice: keep their new life on Ararat, or get off on the only ship that could ever take them away. Aura, through her Conjoiner implants, urges the central heroes to seek out a group of entities called “the shadows” in a distant solar system, as she has determined only they can save humanity from the inhibitors. The problem is, even if they want to do this, they have to convince the Captain (who is a bit temperamental) that it’s in his own best interest.
Ahead in time from where the colonists are struggling, a girl named Rashmika Els has decided to run away from home to find her brother. She lives on a moon devoid of atmosphere, so people generally live in mining colonies underground. The mining is not high-pay work at the best of times: they are mostly excavating for relics from a lost civilization known as “scuttlers,” which are then sold at market and generally taken to off-world market by visiting Ultras.
The moon is also fraught with religious fanaticism. Many people on the planet follow different branches of the Quaichist pursuit or doctrine. Giant cathedrals are actually massive churches on wheels and tank tracks that slowly traverse the moon’s entire circumference at exactly the rotational period of the moon. They do this to keep the planet it orbits – a gas giant – constantly as close to directly above them as possible. The entire religion is centered around watching the gas giant for a miracle.
It’s a massive undertaking to keep these cathedrals moving, and Rashmika’s brother chose long ago to go and join one. He did so not to become a “watcher,” but to work as part of a demolition squad whose job it is to make sure the roads in front of the cathedrals are always clear, to send money back to his family. When he left, he sent letters back to his family constantly. Over the years, they grew less frequent, to the point where they stopped completely. Rashmika desperately wants to find her brother, and to attack the very nature of the religious doctrine she suspects has taken her brother and holds sway over the running explanation for the reason and significance of the dead “scuttler” civilization.
In the course of her journey, she finds out that her past may be more than she actually realizes, and that her future has far more significance and importance than she could ever have imagined. It all culminates in these three story lines merging at the climax of the book, where the existence of the human race is held in the balance.
I have a hard time reflecting on this book. I enjoyed many aspects of it: the ethereal or almost supernatural savant child of mysterious origin, the mystery of the shadows, the intense technological standoff between the inhibitors and the human race, the puzzle of long-dead civilizations from whom only traces can be found… In the end, though, it felt somewhat wanting to me. Parts of the book and the overall story really did not resolve for me. The end of the novel was very clearly an end to the storytelling in this continuum, but so many things didn’t finish – they just kind of stopped: how the savant child’s motives actually founded, what actually happened to the inhibitors, what happened to the relationship between the overarching or back end intelligence behind the inhibitors and the Conjoiners Felka (who may have been the daughter of Clavain) and Galiana (the mother of the Conjoiners), who or what the shadows were was never made clear, etc…
Also, in one of the plot twists that connected different story lines, the thread was a little too convenient. One character essentially knows so much about what to do and how to do it from present to future, but at the same time knows nothing about why or what the consequences of her actions will be: she is so clear on how to get from point A to point B over decades worth of time and is so certain about it being the right course, but doesn’t even know what point C is to be. It made no sense.
Part of my difficulty with the book may also have been the very prevalent use of religion as a plot device. I don’t typically enjoy those types of themes as a plot device, and it was no exception here. In books like Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons, religion is there, but it’s not really a device – it’s almost a character in the book with motives and desires. Here, it was just kind of there and many of the characters did things “just because.” Slaves to something that made no real sense from the get-go. The post-human depth of understanding and place in the universe presented in Revelation Space and Redemption Ark seemed to evaporate for no apparent reason.
The characters in this book also seemed much more hollow than the other two books. Clavain and Skade – two very polarizing characters from Redemption Ark – were both killed in a mundane and pointless conflict that didn’t make much sense, and that was kind of the end of the interesting characters for me. The rest of the lot spent much of their time wondering what to do, whining in their own inferiority complexes, just kind of sitting there, and then suddenly making broad jumps to acts of sheer brilliance and superior morals and judgement. The lone standout here was Captain Brannigan who was also the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity. He lasts for most of the book and plays a central and wonderfully creative role in everything that happens. Super neat, because he doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him at first, but slowly comes to grips with it and starts to understand what he can do with his new reality. Of course, as with Skade and Clavain, his end doesn’t really have much meaning.
As a contrast, the end of one of the other major characters in the series, Ilia Volyova, just seemed… better. She spent the better part of two books getting kicked the crap out of, but always seemed to be inviting it and then staying one step ahead of the curve. She was hard, but always seemed steadfast by her own morals and the people around her (though they may not have seen it that way all the time). She was brutal, but honest and business-like and when she met her end, she understood it and understood why. As the reader, I also found myself saying “yup, she did that right.” Of course, that was in Redemption Ark, and nothing like that seemed to happen in Absolution Gap. It was all just kind of “oh, that guy’s dead, now.” End of story.
I just found myself hoping for more. The conflicts in Redemption Ark (probably my favorite book of the series) just seemed so much more frantic, purposeful, and properly polarized with equally logical points of view. The intense mysteries that book presented felt like they foreshadowed a different fate for humanity on a macro and even the characters on a micro scale than what Absolution Gap yielded. You wanted to ride alongside them as they figured out the larger mystery, which never actually re-materialized. You wanted to watch the human race succeed or fail, when you really ended up with neither. The massive technological leap that looked like it might launch humans beyond the relativistic understanding of the universe that kept them bound to certain ways of doing things never actually moved beyond mad experimentation as a last-ditch survival effort in grave circumstances. Some characters seemed to gain insight, but then either never shared it or disappeared entirely from Reynolds’ canon. “Oh, we just won’t talk about that guy. Ever again.”
As I mentioned, when I reached the end of the book, that’s kind of all it felt like. Yup, there’s the end. The writing just kind of stopped. The massive overarching threat kind of just wasn’t there anymore, and everyone went home. Wait, what? Honestly, reading the first two books in this series is enough. Absolution Gap is worth reading in parts, but I’m not sure it’s worth the payoff in the end as compared to Revelation Space and Redemption Ark. Maybe it would have been better if this book had used a title beginning in the letter “R.” I’ll never know.