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Revelation Space    by Alastair Reynolds order for
Revelation Space
by Alastair Reynolds
Order:  USA  Can
Orion, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The cover touts Revelation Space as the first great science fiction novel of the century, and it's not far off. Reynolds paints a grand canvas of words and worlds, reminiscent of Asimov's Foundation or Herbert's Dune.

There are several sub-plots that develop independently and then merge together late in the story. One follows the ruthless and obsessed archaeologist, Sylveste, not a particularly sympathetic character. We first see him choosing to protect his dig from a razorstorm, at the risk of his own life and that of his workers. The dig is on the planet Resurgam, colonized by a scientific team investigating the destruction of the Amarantin race after a mysterious Event. Journalist Pascale is covering the dig and has an equal interest in Sylveste. Then there is Sylveste's father Calvin, long dead, but still very present and opinionated in his beta simulation form. Politics on Resurgam are complex, and erupt in a coup that results in Sylveste's imprisonment for many years.

Another strand of this interwoven tale takes place aboard the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity, traveling towards the planet Yellowstone. This ship reminded me of Gormenghast - full of strange horrors and peopled by a crew with obscure motivations. The ultimate horror on the lighthugger is its Captain, in stasis but still gradually being taken over by a fibrous metallic growth. Most crewmembers are in cryogenic sleep, woken only occasionally. Ilya Volyova, a member of the ruling Triumvir and in charge of the ship's advanced weapons is attempting to train a Gunnery Officer to interface with the frightening cache-weapons through neural implants.

The third and last plot follows Ana Khouri on Yellowstone. Separated from her soldier husband in time by a clerical error that sent her light-years in reefersleep to Epsilon Eridani, she took a job as a contract assassin. Subsequently she is contacted by the Mademoiselle and blackmailed into taking a contract on, no other, Sylveste. Aside from Calvin, Khouri is perhaps the most appealing character in Revelation Space , though both Sylveste and Volyova improve with further acquaintance.

Four mysteries move the story through Revelation Space. What caused the Event that destroyed the Amarantin? Is Sylveste's obsession driven by his ego, or is there more to it? What motivates the Nostalgia for Infinity , its Captain and crew? Who or what is Sun Stealer? They remain unanswered until the conclusion of the stories, when all the plots merge together in a surprising ending at Cerberus and the neutron star Hades.

What makes this story comparable to some of the greats in its genre is the detail and uniqueness of the many facets of Reynold's universe. There are the major alien races: the avian-descended Amarantin studied through their ruins; the carapacial Shrouders guarding a Pandora's box of stored knowledge; and the Pattern Jugglers, a biochemical consciousness capable of imprinting humans with the capabilities of other species. Human beings have been enhanced by cloning, bioengineering, by neural implants and by exposure to the Juggler oceans. The technology innovation is equally fascinating from the lighthugger's brilliant spider room, janitor-rats and intelligent spacesuits to Sylveste's engineered vision and the capability to store consciousness in simulation cartridges.

The multiple plots and characters and the variety of new concepts to be absorbed make this a fairly complex read. However it is indeed a landmark novel of the far future, and not to be missed.

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