Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Alastair Reynolds has written more than a few epic science-fiction books over the course of his career, but it all began with the widely-acclaimed Revelation Space, marking the start of The Inhibitor Trilogy. It follows the story of a scientist-archaeologist who discovers an ancient alien artifact pointing to the existence of beings who put contingency measures in place should civilizations reach certain technological advancements.
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Alastair Reynolds Creates the Inhibitor Saga
As great as Earth might be, our efforts to milk it dry and procreate without pause all but guarantee we will one day be forced to colonize outer space. In his novel Revelation Space, the first entry in the Revelation Space: The Inhibitor Trilogy, Alastair Reynolds takes us to a fantastical future where the colonization has already taken place, leading us on a collision course with something a whole lot more ancient than ourselves.
The story introduces us to scientist-archaeologist Dan Sylveste and the resplendent success of his latest dig on the planet Resurgam, unveiling an alien artifact. Dated as being over nine hundred thousand years old, it becomes a source of immense fascination for Sylveste, who begins to make some worrying discoveries in his study of the relic.
Precisely-speaking, it seems to suggest an ancient race of beings, from the planet Amarantin, was wiped out almost instantly by an encounter with infinitely superior alien technology. Naturally, he comes to realize such a fate might await humanity, and sets out to try and avert it at all costs… however, he must first identify what kind of enemy he is facing.
While he is busy piercing the mysteries of the disappeared civilization, Sylveste is recruited aboard a spaceship, the Nostalgia, to attempt to heal the captain who has contracted a deadly plague. At the same time, an assassin also makes her way on-board the ship, with the express mission of killing Dan Sylveste before he can get close enough to the truth.
As the scientist-archaeologist finds himself ensnared into a vast adventure filled with deceit and conspiracies, the real enemy is patiently waiting, observing from afar, and drifting on an unlikely collision course with the man. Humanity’s story might be coming to an end, but Dan Sylveste’s is just beginning.
The Longest Trail in Revelation Space
I think it’s reasonable to say one ought to go into an epic science-fiction novel prepared for a long-winded story which, most likely, will end on some sort of cliffhanger heralding the next work in the series. Revelation Space fits into this type of mould about as perfectly as the genre’s most highly-touted works.
To begin with, the story itself is a rather long one, spanning three books, each one being approximately six hundred pages long. Naturally, this doesn’t mean it moves slowly; on the contrary, the distances our characters have to cross are vast and the events they become entangled in numerous. While it does have moments where things slow down (I’ll discuss this a bit more down below), for the most part, we’re never starved of new elements to feast on.
Watching how Dan Sylveste and the misfit crew of the Nostalgia ship make their way from one point to the next one is often thrilling, but can also at times be emotional and even thought-provoking in certain circumstances. There are a few moments where some suspension of disbelief is required, but then again, Revelation Space is, after all, a work of science-fiction, and such moments don’t ruin the rest of the story.
It’s an ancient technique known as lying, Khouri.― Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space
The trail they end up following leads them across galactic voids, from one star to the next one, and presents a large amount of variety in terms of the challenges faced by the crew. At the same time, it keeps teasing us with mysterious questions, the answers to which are only doled out bit by bit, keeping the reader always hungry for more.
The whole mystery surrounding the disappearance of the ancient alien race in Revelation Space is played up magnificently by Dan Sylveste, and I found myself as anxious to see its resolution as I would be for the reveal of the culprit in a whodunit novel. Naturally, Alastair Reynolds doesn’t deem fit to answer every single question posed, but he does reveal enough to make the conclusion a satisfying one.
The Hard Shell of Science
Though I would classify Revelation Space as being an epic sci-fi novel, I think it can definitely also be classified as hard science-fiction, something which becomes apparent from the very first pages of the book. With his PhD in astrophysics, Reynolds is qualified like few others to provide minute details about space-related technology, and it seems to me he’s quite aware of it.
There are some extensive descriptions down to the smallest and tiniest details of things which, admittedly, sometimes seem inconsequential. For instance, I think we could have done without a three-page description of the manufacturing process responsible for the production of a weapon wielded by the character.
In other words, there are some sections where I do think the author loses a bit of focus and deviates into inconsequential descriptions. The segments themselves are by no means badly written. As a matter of fact, the author’s prose flows quite freely from one page to the next, and if like myself you tend to enjoy such long and precise descriptions, then you’ll find they add a welcome layer of realism to the plot.
I especially enjoyed his meticulous examinations of potential future technology, always an extrapolation of what we know today (for instance, faster-than-light travel still hasn’t been achieved). If nothing else, these parts of the book pushed me to think about our modern technology, the direction it might be headed, and its ultimate consequences for us. In short, the book made me think, something I always value extremely highly.
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On the other hand, if you are the kind of reader who doesn’t enjoy seeing the pace slowed down and want to witness a plot without any kind of fat on it, then you will have difficulties with some of the passages in this book. Thankfully, they are quite easy to identify and skip, something I recommend you do if they become unbearable, for the whole story is very much worth reading through despite any drawbacks.
The Final Verdict
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds is an absolutely captivating epic science-fiction novel coloured by heavy elements of hard sci-fi. Though it has a couple of flaws which need to be taken into account, on the whole it offers a compelling mystery slowly unravelled through a long and fascinating adventure across the stars. If you’re looking for an intelligent sci-fi saga with hard elements aptly-mixed in as well as a fair deal of pure excitement, then I highly recommend you consider adding this novel to your library.
Alastair Reynolds is a British author of science-fiction novels who primarily specializes in hard sci-fi and space opera, with his PhD in astrophysics from the University of St Andrews being put to good use on many occasions. His highly-acclaimed works include Revelation Space, Elysium Fire, Chasm City and Harvest of Time.