Sunday, 23 September 2007

Something harder

While Neal Asher's science fiction owes something to the medium-hard (or medium-soft depending on one's personal science fiction "Mohs scale") work of Iain Banks, another recent discovery, Alastair Reynolds, is far more in the mold of harder writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford. Anyway, the books to be consigned to the charity shop are ...

Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds, 2005, science fiction
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds, 2000, science fiction
Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds, 2002, science fiction
Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds, 2003, science fiction

While Pushing Ice is a standalone novel, the other three novels are part of Reynolds Revelation Space series, and requires something more by way of description.

This series is (again) set several centuries into the future, and in neighbouring solar systems to that of Sol. The setting is a universe with plenty of evidence for alien civilizations, but a distinct absence of aliens (bar some odd phenomena that hint at hiding aliens). In Revelation Space, humanity has expanded from the Earth and, on a planet called Resurgam, is living alongside the ruins of an apparently "recently" extinguished species (only 1 million years dead). The novel follows the exploits of an archaeologist set on uncovering the truth behind this extinction regardless of the cost. Many other characters and subplots are brought it, but the crux of the novel is the gradual revealing of the fate of the previous inhabitants of Resurgam. The latter two novels explore the consequences of the revelations of the first. In essence, machinery put in place by early civilizations in deep time (early galactic history) acts to extinguish emerging civilizations to spare yet-to-come civilizations from a predicted future calamity. Humanity has been fortunate to arrive on the scene during a calm period, but its actions have triggered the emergence of the civilization-curtailing machines (one of whom even features as a character at one point).

As with many fictional series, the first novel is by far the best. The set up and gradual revealing of a carefully thought-through universe is always fun. Diminishing returns, however, set in relatively quickly here. Mostly, I think, because Reynolds forces his characters through some very odd contortions (I'm thinking of the enmity between Clavian and Skade here). These don't ring true, and distract from the wider events.

In keeping with many science fiction writers from the latter few decades of the 20th century, Reynolds tries to grant his characters plausible emotions and personal evolution (as set against earlier novelists who focused solely on plot or ideas). To my mind, however, he's not terribly successful on these points. Some characters work and their changes fit the events surrounding them; others seem unhinged or respond unconvincingly to events. Not enough to markedly damage the novels, but enough to somewhat strain credulity (always dangerous in science fiction, where credulity is routinely strained). Part of this stems from using more or less the same cast in the novels. I thought he might try the trick of completely switching cast each novel such that one gets to see the consequences of familiar events through new eyes (which allows gradual revelation as a plot device again), but unfortunately not.

Still, despite these negative remarks, the underlying science fiction is very exciting, and rather plausibly drawn (no faster-than-light travel, etc. here). As with Asher, I'll doubtless keep checking up on Reynolds, but Revelation Space isn't as captivating as The Culture, the Galactic Centre saga or the Eight Worlds.

Having said all of the above, I should add that Pushing Ice is a much, much better novel than any of the Revelation Space titles. It follows the fate of a single spacecraft and its crew after they are sent to check up on the strange behaviour of one of Saturn's moons. The "moon" turns out not to be a moon at all, and winds up taking the crew on an extraordinary journey. While somewhat similar to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, the novel is populated with interesting and engaging characters that, this time, do seem plausible and behave that way. Interpersonal conflicts are set up, and they evolve in a believable way. And it's all set alongside a cracking plot that gradually reveals a very interesting universe, and some very engaging aliens. Like the original Rendezvous, the reader is left at the end with both a widened sense of perspective and a ton of questions still dangling (while a sequel would be gobbled up, it might not be for the best; c.f. Revelation Space).

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