The novel “Revelation Space” by Alastair Reynolds was published for the first time in 2000.
Dan Sylveste is an archaeologist obsessed with the mystery of the Amarantin, a civilization that lived on the planet Resurgam that disappeared after a mysterious catastrophe about 900,000 years ago. A new discovery shows that the Amarantin were much more advanced than Sylveste and his colleagues thought but the colony of Resurgam goes through divisions and coups. To carry out his research, Sylveste must first survive the assassination attempts.
The starship “Nostalgia for Infinity” has a crew of Ultras, humans heavily modified to adapt to long interstellar travel. The captain is infected by a plague that attacks both his organic and nanotechnology parts and the only one who can help him is Dan Sylveste. Among the crew, however, there’s the infiltrate Ana Khouri, a former military who became a killer for hire sent by the mysterious Mademoiselle to kill Sylveste.
Alastair Reynolds is an astrophysicist who has worked for several years for ESA. For about a decade he has written science fiction short fiction in his spare time and in a number of those stories he had already outlined the fictional universe in which he set “Revelation Space”, his first novel. Later it was called the Revelation Space universe, actually after this novel was published.
“Revelation Space” is set in the Twenty-sixth century, when humanity is scattered in space and colonized a number of planets. Interstellar travel is made with starships traveling at nearly the speed of light but without exceeding it, therefore going from one planet to another may take many years. Over the centuries, mankind has fragmented into various forms of transhumanism with different uses of technology to enhance the physical and mental capabilities of human beings.
“Revelation Space” starts with three different subplots all of which however concern one of the protagonists, Dan Sylveste. One of the subplots follows the archaeologist’s research on the planet Resurgam, where he’s beein studying the catastrophe that wiped the Amarantin civilization. The second one takes place on the starship “Nostalgia for Infinity”, where the captain is incapacitated due to a kind of plague and his officers are looking for Sylveste because he might help him. The third one follows the story of Ana Khouri, a killer for hire who is sent to kill Sylveste.
The initial part of “Revelation Space” is quite complex to follow because the three subplots are set on different planets and include interstellar travel so the events take place over several years. These events are not narrated in chronological order so it’s important to pay attention to the year indicated at the beginning of each chapter, however it’s clear that this choice makes reading it harder.
“Revelation Space” contains a lot of ideas because Alastair Reynolds has created a story that offered him the opportunity to introduce his fictional universe to the people who had never read the stories set in it. Dan Sylveste has in fact a complex past and was involved in various research that are slowly told in the course of the novel.
Alastair Reynolds often uses the narrative device of having one of the characters tell another one part of his past in order to provide the reader with the information needed to understand what’s going to happen. Honestly in “Revelation Space” the author makes heavy use of it and this slows the pace of the story, on the other hand the plot of the novel is really complex and requires a lot of information to be provided in some way to the reader.
Luckily, around the middle of “Revelation Space” the subplots get unified eliminating one of the difficulties in following the story. The second part of the novel is still complex because various characters slowly start revealing their secrets. The tension rises, also because the revelations come not all at once but piece by piece. This influences the events to reach an ending full of surprises.
The characters in “Revelation Space” are many and inevitably only a few protagonists are well developed: Dan Sylveste, Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova, one of the officers of the “Nostalgia for Infinity”. There aren’t really good guys and villains because all the characters have personalities and motivations of which the complexity is showed in the course of the novel.
For someone, this may be a flaw, also because it’s difficult for readers to like such characters. For me this is a merit because Alastair Reynolds went well beyond narrative clichés offering a rich fictional universe in which the characters act according to complex motivations.
This choice also leads to complex relationships between the various characters. For example, throughout the novel we see various power plays in the colony on the planet Resurgam and aboard the “Nostalgia for Infinity”. The colony of Resurgam is small but in time disagreements and factions rise with coups and political assassinations. On the “Nostalgia for Infinity” a triumvirate runs the starship when the captain is put into suspended animation to try to prevent the plague from invading his whole body but one of the triumvirs seems much more equal than the others.
All these elements form a novel with a plot that is sometimes convoluted and not always easy to follow but is really rich, making the label space opera really limiting. Many elements are developed in more or less details ending having even a history of the galaxy and an interpretation of the Fermi paradox. If you don’t mind 500+ page books with complex stories, “Revelation Space” is in my opinion a novel to read.