Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Use of Revelations

Another visit to the Revelation Space universe, this time with Alastair Reynolds' novel Chasm City.

Tanner Mirabel is out for revenge. As a security operative on the war-torn world of Sky's Edge he protected Cahuella, a merciless arms dealer, and his wife, Gitta. But when Reivich, a victim of Cahuella's trading, comes calling for revenge, Mirabel is unable to save Cahuella, and accidentally causes the death of Gitta. In pursuit of Reivich, Mirabel leaves Sky's Edge and heads for the distant planet of Yellowstone, a shining jewel of human achievement. However, before he gets there, Yellowstone is struck by the Melding Plague, a nanotechnological scourge that mutates its infrastructure, cripples its economy and creates an ugly society of haves and have-nots. Worse, when Mirabel arrives, he discovers that he has been infected by a virus spreading a religious cult formed around Sky Haussmann, the notorious Machiavellian founder of Sky's Edge, and must periodically succumb to flashbacks from Haussman's life. Penniless, and losing Reivich's trail, Mirabel throws himself into the underworld and overlords of Yellowstone's capital city, Chasm City. Along the way he encounters aristocrats hunting paupers, a drug craze related to the Melding Plague, and the suspicion that his Haussman flashbacks are telling him a lot more than the Sky's Edge history books do.

Structurally, the novel is divided into three narrative strands. The first is the (relatively) straightforward tale of Mirabel's pursuit of Reivich from Sky's Edge to Yellowstone and Chasm City. The second stream follows the events on Sky's Edge leading up to the deaths of Cahuella and Gitta. The third, which occurs as apparent flashbacks for Mirabel, replays sections from the life of Sky Haussmann as he travels from Earth to the world later known as Sky's Edge. While the third strand at first appears separate and distinct from the other two, it becomes clear that none of the strands are quite what they appear, and the relationships between them are gradually revealed as the novel unfolds. By the end of the novel, the reader's expectations have been completely overturned not once but twice, as various revelatory events occur. While both make for an exciting rollercoaster ride, the second of these is extreme and the novel rather glosses over the implications of it (see the "spoiler" section below for further discussion).

Although part of the Revelation Space universe, and involving some of the larger scale elements from the main sequence of novels (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap), Chasm City is fairly self-contained, with no obvious groundwork for direct sequels. Reynolds does a good job of integrating the places, events and characters of the other novels into this one, such that Revelation Space veterans can derive a lot of added value from this novel, but without introducing elements that would be confusing to a novice reader. I was really quite impressed in places at the dovetailing between footnotes from the main sequence of novels and the events described here.

Overall, another worthy addition to Reynolds' canon. Although set firmly within his well-established future history, it benefits greatly from being standalone and not simply being part of the main sequence of Revelation Space novels. This allows Reynolds to exploit his existing Revelation Space creation, but do what he's best at: the set-up. Reynolds' next novel in the series, The Prefect, similarly avoids the main sequence, so I've high hopes for that too (of which, more in the future).

Spoiler warning

As I've hinted above, Chasm City contains a number of revelations that undercut the reader's expectations in this novel. The identity of the protagonist goes through two significant revisions, the latter of which, in particular, casts a long shadow over the protagonist. The first revelation, that Tanner Mirabel is actually Cahuella, is not irrecoverable, since Cahuella, while not a nice man, is not appalling. The second revelation, that Cahuella is actually Haussmann, doesn't stand up to the same scrutiny.

From the start of the novel to its end, the protagonist is painted in a relatively sympathetic light, and it's clear that Reynolds wants the reader to empathise with him. But the transformation from Haussmann to Cahuella is tacked on too briefly at the end of the novel, so there's no sense that Haussmann realises the error of his ways and reforms himself. The plot device that Reynolds seems to be using to achieve this is simply amnesia: Mirabel-Cahuella-Haussmann has edited his memories so extensively, he's no longer any of these people, but is actually someone much better. But there's no suggestion that this has been a conscious decision, or that it forms part of Haussmann's redemption.

Almost the same idea was used in Iain Banks' much superior Culture novel Use of Weapons. However, in Banks' novel, the redemption, or attempted redemption, of the central character is a fundamental component of the narrative, even if the reader is not aware of this until the end of the novel. In Chasm City, we're expected to make a similar jump unassisted. That we're supposed to do this (i.e. perhaps Reynolds instead wants a despotic character?) is clear from the support Mirabel receives from other characters even after his true identity is revealed. In passing, Banks' novel additionally handles the revelations more successfully. By relying on a stronger narrative structure (one narrative runs forwards, the other backwards), Banks avoids Reynolds' clumsily explicit device of memory alteration to pull off the same trick.

Still, not many novels are as successful as Use of Weapons, so I'm being a bit hard on Chasm City here.

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