Friday, 5 June 2015

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

I read the first three Revelation Space books by Alastair Reynolds over a decade ago, before I began this blog: Revelation Space (published in 2000), Chasm City (2001) and Redemption Ark (2002). I stopped reading the series after that, possibly because I needed a break from the not insignificant effort involved in grappling with his complex plots, dense writing and very lengthy stories. I therefore missed the next one in the series – Absolution Gap (2003) – although I did read a stand-alone novel, Pushing Ice (2005), a couple of years ago and reviewed it in this blog.

On looking through my reading pile (which goes back decades) I noticed Absolution Gap sitting there so decided to give it a spin. I remember virtually nothing of the earlier books – reading the Wiki plot summaries rang only the faintest of bells – and I wasn't about to devote weeks to reading them all again, so I started "cold" and can only assess it as a stand-alone novel.

Typically of Reynolds, the structure is complex with several threads running in parallel, set in different places and at different times (to be precise; 2615, 2675 and 2727, with the prologue and epilogue set four centuries later). Fortunately the location and date of each chapter are signalled at the start, so it's not too confusing as long as you pay attention. However, while two of the threads are new, one (2675) is a continuation of events and characters in Redemption Ark and no concessions are made to those unfamiliar with the earlier novels, with the first summary of previous events occurring around page 200. Since your reviewer recalled nothing of these, he was left somewhat groping in the dark (not an unusual occurence…).

Anyway, the 2615 thread is fairly brief, dealing with the discovery of Haldora, a gas giant with the disconcerting habit of occasionally vanishing for a fraction of a second. The 2727 thread is set in the same location on the airless but settled world of Hela, Haldora's moon, where a precocious teenage girl is searching for her long-lost brother in a strange environment of vast baroque self-propelled cathedrals which move along a fixed track around the moon to keep Haldora overhead, so that the inhabitants can observe the vanishings which are the key element of their religion. In between, the 2675 thread is set on the watery world of Ararat, a refuge from a war between humanity – especially the Conjoiners, who have neural implants to enhance their capabilities – and the Inhibitors, an ancient alien force designed to destroy advanced civilisations. But they are not left alone for long, and the two threads eventually combine.

Absolution Gap is packed full of concepts and races, some of which are left dangling. For example the Pattern Jugglers of Ararat, a oceanic "world mind" with the capacity to absorb the minds (and sometimes bodies) of humans who swim in it; and the Shadows, the Nestbuilders and the Greenfly, mysterious alien races of which the last two are only described in the epilogue. In fact, the epilogue reads a little like an outline of a sequel which the author had lost interest in writing. At 660 pages of small font text, this is not a quick read. Nonetheless I was absorbed from the start and spent most of one transatlantic flight reading it.

Two points are worth mentioning about Reynolds' writing: first, it is very good indeed, comparable with Iain M Banks (although without the dry humour); second, his Revelation Space universe, while optimistic as far as the continued survival of humanity is concerned, is no utopia, and don't expect "happily ever after" endings. Nonetheless, readers new to the Revelation Space series are in for a treat in terms of top-quality hard SF provided that you are prepared to set aside a lot of time to read them carefully, preferably at fairly short intervals so that you can remember previous events. There is one other novel set in the Revelation Space universe, The Prefect (2007), which is a prequel to the other four, plus some short stories.


dlw said...

"The Prefect" works okay as a standalone, as does "Chasm City." Most of the others require some familiarity with the rest of the series to be able to follow everything. A "previously in Revelation Space" prologue would help a lot.

I'd like to put in my oar for "Century Rain." That one is from 2004, and while it's not set in Revelation Space, it's *almost* one... the main difference is that there's faster-than-light travel.

Century Rain is, in my opinion, easily his best work. It moves between a 25th century immediately after a war between pre- and post-humans... and an alternate France in a 1950s where there never was a Second World War, from the viewpoints a 25th-century archeologist and a 1950s private detective. Reynolds snaps the pieces into place until the storyline changes from "WTF?" to "well, of course..."

Reynolds' short stories are mostly set in Revelation Space, but tend to be more self-contained than the novels.

dlw said...

About half of my comments here never show up. I use the "Google Account" login after typing a comment, then the text box clears. Sometimes a comment shows up, sometimes it doesn't.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for the info. I seem to have a lot of catching up to do!

Anthony G Williams said...

Posts don't show up immediately because I moderate them (made necessary some time ago by a spate of spam and foreign-language posts). So there may be a gap of a few hours before they appear, depending on when I next get to check my inbox.

dlw said...

At the bottom of the page there's an empty text box and a "choose an identity" radio button. I put text in the box, click "publish", and get taken to Google, where I log in there. Then I'm sent back here, except the text box is now (usually) blank.

Besides being a hassle, there's no feedback. Sometimes a comment shows up in a day or so, sometimes it doesn't. I get returned to a blank text box either way. Sometimes I'll post the same comment two or three times; I assume you're killing the duplicates. Since I play nice and stay on topic, I doubt you're deleting my posts because you find them offensive.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, I delete duplicate posts, and also spam. I would delete anything offensive, although I can't recall that ever occurring.

WFS said...

I'm about a quarter of the way through Absolution Gap. I've been an avid Sci-fi fan for about 55 of my 65 years, so I am familiar with a lot of the novels and authors. I've been an amature astronomer for 50 plus years too. So Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space series has really appealed to me. Did you know he was an Astronomer, before he took up writing?

I believe it was mentioned to plan on setting aside plenty of time to read the novels because if their complexity. I agree, but I solved that problem by listening to the entire series on mp3 audio books. I find it much more enjoyable than reading it, as the same person narrates the entire series. And he's very good at portraying the various characters. Plus you can listen while driving, walking working around the house etc.

Anthony G Williams said...

I've never really tried audiobooks (although I once enjoyed some Doctor Who CDs on a long car journey) as I'm a traditional, old-fashioned book-lover. I don't even have an e-reader - I just have a large pile of paperbacks awaiting my attention.