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‘Revelation Space': admirable intro to a tough ‘opera’

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“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.”
With three tempting novels on the review shelf, it was ‘Revelation Space’ by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2000; paperback 2001) which just beat the others past a “first lines and in at the deep end” test.
We’re on the unfriendly surface of the planet Resurgam, Delta Pavonis system, the year 2551. Battling the misgivings of his team with an obstinate logic and bloody-mindedness, Dan Sylveste persuades most to stay with the dig.
If the alternative is to evacuate and risk losing all trace of the site for years to come, the archaeologist would rather batten down against the tempest and unearth more of a civilisation wiped out 900,000 years earlier.
What killed the Amarantin and why?
Does it matter? Few other scientists share Sylveste’s obsession with a long-dead and not particularly sophisticated alien race on an inhospitable planet. Even if the secret is there to be unriddled, it’s scarcely likely to mean much to humanity, which has better things to do now that its vast lighthugger ships are travelling to more profitable parts of the known universe.

Reynold’s big first book, ambitious and confident, won him immediate praise and almost instant comparisons with superstars in the space opera genre like Dan Simmons, Peter F. Hamilton and Stephen Baxter.
It’s black, bleak, extremely well written, with an undercurrent of menace and increasing danger, and it’s a thriller to keep you turning the pages until you lose sleep. Barely one of the main characters — alive, dead or in between — is likeable, but their lives and their emotions grab hold of you and sustain the interest through some extensive and inventive hard and believable future science.

One good question Reynolds tackles concerns humanity’s solitude in a universe which seems increasingly likely to host many possibilities for intelligent life.
A professional astronomy research scientist in his day job, the Welsh-born writer forgets any religious or mythical assumptions to ask not “Are we alone?”, but “Why are we so very alone?”
The Amarantin are one of more than half a dozen long dead alien civilisations humans have found by the 26th century.
A smaller handful of very different races survives, including the Pattern Jugglers and the Shrouders. They can do strange and very dangerous things to people’s minds, but they are far from genocidal. Dan Sylveste is the only person to have gone to a shroud and come back sane.

Amid power struggles on Resurgam, Sylveste’s fascination with the Amarantin finds him a buried and largely intact city, with linguistic clues he can just about grasp and a colossus of a statue which could hint at the secret of extermination. But forgetting politics for the sake of his obsession costs Dan his position and his freedom.

Part of the answer to the mystery of obliterated civilisations haunts a starship called the Nostalgia for Infinity. This old, battered lighthugger carries a strange cargo of powerful ands inhuman weaponry, only partially mastered and understood by the sole crew member to stay mainly awake, Ilya Volyova. And what Ilya wants is a gunner. Her last one went mad.
The perilous Chasm City, Yellowstone, in the Epsilon Eridani system, is home to a likely candidate. Ana Khouri, a hardened soldier embittered by loss, now pursues the career of contract killer. That Ilya’s going to pick her up is inevitable.
The lives of Dan, Ilya, Ana and others come together in a quest to make sense of one of the most original and terrifying artefacts in recent science fiction, a deadly threat from an immensely distant past to any sentient and space-faring species.

‘Revelation Space’ is a tense, taut and rewarding book, and also the first SF novel I’ve reviewed in a while that is decidedly of a genre, part of no mainstream and none the worse for that. It’s also the first of a series pursued in ‘Redemption Ark’ and ‘Absolution Gap’, which was published last November; and Reynolds has written a novel about ‘Chasm City’.
Teased by accounts of the more recent work, I preferred to begin at the beginning. I’m very glad I did.

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