This is the 8th week of our Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge, and finally finally FINALLY we have a book I could really get into. I've learned in the course of this challenge that science fiction, despite offering interesting scenarios, is difficult for me to get into as a reader. I've spent too much time in literature classes to shrug off sub-par writing, and I need characters with some kind of depth, even if I find them distasteful, in order to fully engage with a story. I'm not able to focus my attention on a movie that is pure action and no feeling, and it's no surprise that I feel the same way when it comes to books.
Alastair Reynolds is one of the (apparently rare) creatures who not only has vast knowledge of a particular field of science, in this case astronomy, but is able to translate his scientific prowess into an artfully told, emotionally satisfying, and entertaining story. His characters have thoughts beyond “Shoot that thing! Now shoot that thing!” They have to make wrenchingly difficult decisions, and because technology in Reynolds's universe allows computer infiltration into human brains, they're not always sure if their thoughts are their own or if they're being manipulated by an external presence. Ahh, the complexity!—not just of the science involved, which is fairly academic, but of the characters and the choices they must make.
I was delighted to come across an example of a science fiction writer who could manage both types of complexity with equal aplomb. I was even more delighted to find not one, not two, but three central female characters—each with a very different personality and skill set. With the possible exception of Jessica in Dune, this is the first time in the Challenge that we've had strong, realistic female characters who serve as more than eye candy (remember the bouncing '70s boobs of A Scanner Darkly?).
If I haven't managed to sell you yet, here's a bit of background: Revelation Space is a space opera, which is a sci-fi sub-genre in which the story spans a wide range of time and geography (shout-out to Adam for the succinct definition!). I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy all the talk of interstellar space travel, space shuttles, and G-forces, but I was spellbound by the characters' journeys around the galaxy, particularly the way time seems to become highly subjective, the passage of it faster for some and slower for others depending on the speed and distance of their travels. I've heard others claim that one thing Reynolds does well is express the great gasping vastness of space, and I have to agree.
That was another thing that really worked for me—Reynolds explains just enough to make the science accessible, but never so much that he comes across as pedantic or lecture-y. It's an impressive feat, considering how convoluted the situation gets by the final chapters, with the lines between human and machine blurred more than you'd think possible. (But this is sci-fi, so anything is possible! Theoretically.)
Reynolds keeps everything moving along by hopping back and forth (sometimes frenetically) between several groups of characters. First is Dan Sylveste, an archaeologist of sorts, except he studies dead alien civilizations in other solar systems. One culture, the Amarantin, become a particular fixation for Dan as he investigates deeper into the surface of their former home planet Resurgam. Then there's Ilia Volyova, aboard a massive shuttle called a lighthugger, traveling at unfathomable speeds through the universe while trying to keep her cryogenically frozen captain alive, although by this point he might be more machine than man. And finally we meet Ana Khouri, a former soldier who now works as a paid assassin-for-hire—but the catch is that she is hired by her targets themselves.
And that's just the characters at the very beginning of the book. We can tell they're set on a trajectory towards each other, but there are a lot of questions that are going to have to be answered before the final page. I have to admit, I found the narrative a bit disjointed in the first half of the book, when all the characters are in different places doing different things, but when they come together the structure does as well, and the second half of the book is an unstoppable page-turner.
Only four books left to go in the Challenge! Join us next Sunday as we discuss Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, the first book on the list written by a woman (and one of my favorite writers of all time). To see the complete list of Summer of Sci-Fi books, click here.