Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space

There was a razorstorm coming in. Sylveste stood on the edge of the excavation and wondered if any of his labours would survive the night …

Why I read it, or: Revelation Space versus The Matrix

Sometimes a thing happens with books or movies. It may have happened to you, too. It’s when a friend tells you about a book or movie that you absolutely have to see because they just know you will totally love it. But the more the review increases in its glowingness (‘I know you will fall in love with it’) and personalisation (‘It’s like it was made for you. The whole time, it made me think of you.’) and aggressiveness (‘Seriously, if you don’t read this book next I will scratch your eyes out’), the more you just can’t for some reason bring yourself to read it.

I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because expectations have been raised so much you’re scared to confront them. Maybe it’s because you’re not in the mood right now for confronting something profound or moving. Or maybe it’s because you remember so many other times friends told you something would blow your mind and instead you found it disappointing – maybe because of the hype rather than in spite of it – like The Matrix.*

The important thing to remember though is that recommendations like this fall into two categories. Firstly there are recommendations by closeish friends, who get it almost but not quite right (Inception is another example here). But secondly there are the ones your really close friends tell you about, and going along with those is less like undertaking a project, than like slipping into a warm geothermal pool under an auroral sky: spectacular and memorable while being easy and enjoyable.**

Which is a long way of saying that if I’d given it proper thought, I would have realised that when James recommended Revelation Space to me I’d probably really like it. But instead, I put it off for months, and only read it when he held me hostage with it on a remote Pacific Island when there was nothing else around to read.

Turns out I really liked it.

How it’s written, or: Revelation Space versus The Baby-Sitters Club

Revelation Space plunges you into a fully-formed universe with little explanation and expects you to work out what’s going on for yourself as it whizzes you along. I love that. It’s like Reynolds wrote the book in full, then deleted the introductory and concluding parts from each chapter. He expunges unnecessary exposition (you can work out from context the meanings of Shrouders and Ultras and Lighthuggers and so on) and summation (if you can predict what’s going to happen, there’s no need to spell it out) and just leaves a non-stop, crescendoing, action-filled story that accelerates to its end.

Being thrown in the deep end makes the universe of the book feel more real, more immediate, and more like you’re the one discovering it yourself. The other end of the spectrum is where every new thing gets introduced in tedious detail at the start, which makes you feel more like you’re experiencing the story second-hand, as if from a pamphlet written for an idiot. My personal scientific scale for measuring a book’s showingness versus its tellingness goes from 0 (The Baby-Sitters Club) to 10 (Neuromancer). Revelation Space as I remember it is somewhere around a 9.***

What it’s about, or: Revelation Space versus Agatha Christie

The story starts small and specific and scattered, and then implodes upon itself with ever increasing velocity and mass until all its pieces smash into each other in an awesome space-rumbling conclusion. Like a neutron star. What a coincidence.

At the start you have a few unrelated characters on their separate, narrow missions: a group of scientists at an archaeological dig, a defrosted assassin, and a molecular biologist with a ship full of guns that can fuck up suns. By the end, the story has converged and enlarged to address one of the biggest questions scientists have asked about the universe.

Along the way it’s full of interesting characters and rich cities and developed histories. So much so that you suspect a different writer could have dribbled the same number of ideas out over ten or twenty or sixty books instead of packing them all into this single work. Some of my favourite bits: the creative way Volyova kills the guy in the elevator shaft; the term ‘Lighthugger’, the anaglyphic writing script of the Amarantin; the nature of the Melding Plague; and the concepts of the Shrouders and Inhibitors.

Who the characters are, or: Revelation Space versus Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

This story doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it befriends it, teams up with it and goes into business with it. So to speak. The book is full of kickarse women. Women whose minds aren’t so full of thoughts about men and clothes and shiny things that they can get down to the business of saving spaceships and pondering profound problems and doing bad things and solving slippery science mysteries and kicking nasty creatures out of airlocks. In one scene, one woman’s husband is actually in the room and she doesn’t even have to defer to him while explaining complex quantum happenings to another female character. Even when there’s some highly technical gobbledigook they don’t understand they are allowed to do so while maintaining our respect. They are allowed to be people, who happen to be women. It’s so wonderful.

One reviewer of Revelation Space has said they found it a little cold, emotionally. I disagree. I like the way the characters are allowed to feel things while still being able to get on with stuff, rather than getting all paralysed with irrationality. Example: In one scene Woman A tells Woman B how she (A) was at one point going to assassinate B’s husband. But they need to work as a team now and can let bygones be bygones, and anyway Woman B can see how her husband would have been a sensible strategic target, and they recognise each other’s professional roles, so they decide to be all cool. Contrast this to Amidala at the end of Star Wars prequels, where she – the lone female character of significance, and a high-standing politician – can’t think tactically (or indeed at all) because she’s emotionally exploded. Over a crush on a boy. Who everyone else can see is a creep and a psycho. Sigh.

Why this book is much loved, or: Revelation Space versus the bath

This book’s first reader dropped it in the bath. The second reader took it to the island of Yap where it got even wrinklier from the humidity. The corners are slightly rounded from all the traveling. The readers are tired because they have stayed up all night reading this book. This copy of Revelation Space is the Best-Loved Bear of the bookshelf.

This book was mostly read on the balcony at O’Keefes in Yap

* I was told things like this about The Matrix: ‘If you love science fiction you’ll love this,’ and ‘It’s so profound and original you won’t have come across anything like it,’ and ‘You will love its style.’ Well. I’d read sci-fi short stories (eg Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel under the World) which packed more original ideas on the same theme into 33 pages than this film had in 136 minutes. The style and fashion everyone was raving about seemed to be taken straight out of Neuromancer. Also, the impossible thermodynamics of using humans as batteries really annoyed me. But it sure was pretty to watch. I enjoyed it for that and still do. <end of gripe>

** These give you such pleasure it’s sometimes like they start whole new obsessions in your life, like Being John Malkovich (thanks Ryan) or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (thanks Katrina) or Slaughterhouse 5 (thanks Amie).

*** After writing this post I looked up what others had to say about the book. Turns out many of them mention Reynolds’ frequent ‘infodumps’ of expository prose. My first response was confusion, because I didn’t remember them. Maybe what happened is they came late enough in the story to nicely balance (a) my desire to be kept on my toes with (b) the joy of having all the missing links filled in for you at the end.


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