Book Review: Revelation Space

Cut-out of the cover of the Revelation Space book. It shows the tip of a conically shaped space ship impacting the surface of a planet.

It’s been over a decade since I last read Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. I recently decided to revisit this trilogy+ that re-ignited my interest for reading science fiction. It is Reynolds’ first novel, and it was the first of his books I read. Since then, I’ve read almost everything he’s written. If I had to name a favourite sci-fi author, Reynolds would definitely be at the top of my list.

Revelation Space (2000) is the first of a series of four books, where three are direct sequels to each other (book one, three and four), with a book two that fits in the universe but is itself independent.

The Story

The Revelation Space universe is arguably the most elaborate one he has created, and it is a fascinating one. It is in many ways the antidote to the Star Trek universe (I’m also a huge Star Trek fan by the way) in that Reynolds is decidedly pessimistic and dystopian about our space-faring future. In this universe, humankind has fractured and drifted apart into philosophically and physically diverging factions – sometimes at odds with each other.

The galaxy has been teaming with life once, a long time ago, but it is largely dead now and alien cultures long turned into ruins. Revelation Space is above all the story of why this is the case. The darkness of this revelation is resonating throughout a lot of Reynolds’ later writing. It is in part this mood that appeals so much me as a reader. I find some of the same elements that drew me to TV series like Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5.

In any case, the story of Revelation Space is following an archaeologist studying one of the ancient, now extinct alien civilisations, an assassin hired to kill him, and the crew of a ship caught in between. The characters are self-absorbed, arrogant, and not particularly nice people. Still, they are interesting and well developed characters with hidden layers that are revealed to both the reader and the characters themselves throughout the book.

In this highly technological future, the interaction between humans and the technology surrounding them, and even embedded in their bodies, is a constant theme throughout the series. Dialogue between humans and artificial and other digital intelligences is an often used device that works really well as a complement to internal monologue.

Revelation Space is a long read, but it doesn’t feel like it. At no point does it feel long winded and bloated like many other novels of similar volume. The pages are well used and add layers to the main plot, and grit to its characters, throughout. Long interludes and drawn out explanations are non-existent, another common curse of sci-fi with complex universes. Instead, Reynolds mostly manages to reveal important details to the reader in a natural, flowing way. He also leaves out a lot of details that are covered elsewhere in short stories from the same universe.

Attention to Physics

Alastair Reynolds is a physicist, and it shows in his writing. At several points in the book he starts to explain concepts from quantum and particle physics that are not necessarily easy to communicate.

I’m a physicist myself, so I already know what it is he’s talking about. It’s therefore a bit difficult for me to judge, but I think he is explaining the concepts well. He doesn’t go into long interludes of teaching like some other authors have done, but instead wrap it in the same style of prose as the rest of the story, and keeps it as short and non-technical as is necessary for the reader to follow.

I suppose that for the average non-physicist reader, it may not matter if the deep techno-babble makes sense or not on a scientific level, but I find it a nice touch. I especially appreciate how he so successfully makes the effect near light speed travel has on the experience of time for the ship crews and the planet-bound work as part of the plot.

If you love dark, hard sci-fi, the Revelation Space series is a great read and a good introduction to the author’s work.

Related Books

The two other books of the Revelation Space trilogy:

From the same universe, but not a part of the trilogy:

About Veronica

I’m a physicist by education, and work as a researcher and a lot of the work I do involves programming. I also love to write. I've written essays and opinion pieces for magazines and blogs. I like to write about science, and I have started to write science fiction as a hobby. These days I mostly work on my own novel.

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