Revelation Space

On Tuesday I finished reading Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, his first published hardback – and as with most of the big Sci-fi authors, Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury to name a few) was released after a successful career writing short stories, but it doesn’t show. This novel is 545 pages of epic storytelling threaded with more knots and twists than the set of earphones that I keep in my jacket.

The story starts with some very long chapters, however, each one of these is – most of the time – split into three sections, one based on each of the three main protagonists: Volyova, Sylveste and Khouri. Each one you feel has been hand-crafted from a mould of it’s own. Some of the minor characters feel a little flat, but I was not expecting any kind of characterisation from a Hard Sci-Fi novel. I will refrain from purpotrating Spoilercide and relinquish nothing of the plot. However, I will reveal though that each character’s plot thread is worth a novel in it’s own right, each with it’s own secrets, revelations and detailed back story.

Quite quickly, two of the character threads meet, and continue together for the most part, and eventually – and I mean, eventually – all three end up meeting. It’s at this point where the novel actually starts to pick up in pace, for the first third of the novel, Reynolds spends most of the time setting up the universe for the reader – there is alot of information thrown at the reader in the space of a few chapters, which may seem overwhelming. It’s an idea to read the first few chapters twice, to take in all the information should anyone reading it overwhelming. With the scene set the adventure begins, and like the Lord of the Rings, there’s alot of talking and walking – only in this case it’s talking, and travelling at relativistic speeds. There are the odd pieces of action and drama in the middle third – moreso than the first third- but nothing compared to the final third. The story starts off at a slow pace, and ramps up until the end. Swapping the scene setting slowly for more action. Replacing lengthy exposition with quick reveals.

The final Third is progression after progression after progression, interspersed with drama, action and filled with tension.It is the tightest and most entertaining (but of course, that would mean nothing without the first two thirds building up the setting). For a while it went a bit ‘Event Horizon’ on us, with people dying left, right and center,  malevolent entities assaulting the crew with grotesque manifestations. All of which really showcases the depths of Reynolds dark vision of the future.

New technologies, new sociological problems, character histories and so on are thrown at you almost constantly. It’s relentless in it’s quest to crystallise it’s own reality. It’s inevitable that the reader will forget some of the points that were made, and later on when something else is revealed it won’t click as instantly as it should. Not that it happens often, the prose is skillfully constructed, and there are reminders of most things throughout the book, particularly on the build up to another twist or reveal so that the major twist were almost always entertaining.

I used to think that Arthur C. Clarke was pretty solid, hard Sci-Fi wise, but if Revelation Space has told me anything, Arthur C Clarke was tame. The science packed into every page is detailed to the point of neurosis on the part of the author, and it should be, Reynolds was a Research Astronomer for the European Space Agency, and if anyone can speculate accurately about life in space it should be him, and if anyone should want to describe it in such detail, in such an accessible way, it should be him.

Revelation Space is not for the feint of heart. It can be heavy, long winded and there are times when I wanted it to hurry up a bit. I was always anxious for the next bit of story, the next Revelation, and was never satisfied with what he revealed, always hungry for more. So much so that when the novel ended it felt like a bit of an anti climax. After all the build up there were alot of loose ends and unanswered questions – which will undoubtedly set up the remainder of the series – but you’re left thinking “was that it, was that what I read this for”. Indeed, the final reveal seems to take longer to set up than the rest of the story, but seems to fizzle out.

The nature of sentience, the price of technological advancement, and even the sociological changes this technology will bring (normally the domain of Soft Sci-Fi) are executed well.

With the simulation of Calvin’s mind comes the initial question of What is Sentient?

Within the novel there are three types of Artificial Intelligence – Gamma level, which are simple AI’s that repeat set phrases and are only slightly more sophisticated than the call-center answering machines. Beta Level simulations which take data from a persons behaviours and responses to stimuli, with all their knowledge implanted and the result is a simulation that which is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing by Turing tests. The final is an Alpha Level simulation, where the neurons of the brain are trawled and a true simulation is created. One that is ‘officially’ sentient in the context of the novel. Unfortunately, anyone being simulated on the Alpha level also has their neurons destroyed by the process, and so are effectively transfer their soul to the machine.

Questions are then raised about the sentience of the Beta Sims. In particular, Calvin’s simulation, which has been active for so long, in connection with so many networks of data, that he claims sentience himself. The response is invariably “If he didn’t say he was sentient, he wouldn’t pass any of the Turing Tests”, however, towards the end of the novel, it is strongly implied that Calvin’s simulation has achieved true sentience, and is an example of an emergent machine intelligence.

It asks the question: If a simulation of a man can be implanted into a human body, take control of it and continue to live, is the simulation sentient, and if it isn’t, is the man it is in sentient?

Without spoilers, the very end of the novel shows Reynolds answer to it is “Yes they are”.

Interstellar travel is enabled thanks to cryogenic stasis cabinets that freeze the body, allowing it to be unchanged while the craft makes it’s decade long journeys between stars. As a result, a subset of humanity has arisen, known as Ultranauts, that pilot these ships, who live for multiple centuries of relative time, and are essentially separate from ties outside the Ultranaut set. They have their own morals, their own social rules and their own way of looking at the rest of humanity. The norm for Ultranauts is body modification: the likes of cybernetics and nanobiotics, creating a race of chimerics – a mixture of man and machine. The price of this advancement is a skewed view of time. After a decade of their life, half a century or more may have gone by. They take little or no interest in the people or politics of worlds they visit, outside of getting what they want – which is shown about mid-way into the novel when a crew of Ultranauts threaten to blow up settlements on a planet unless their demands are met. They are also subject to the ravages of what’s known as the melding plague – a nanovirus that attacks chimeric implants, causing them to grow wildly, like a cancer.

The Ultranauts serve as a warning to those who believe in technological superiority as and end in itself. That such superiority may ultimately cost you your humanity.

Revelation Space, as a story, is a very good one. The Twists are superb and entertaining, if a little long-winded. The Science is as hard as Granite, and the characters are surprisingly well rounded and flawed for such a novel. The themes sparkle and provoke the mind to ponder the basic principles of our human existence. It’s a masterpiece. It is excellent. It is the first Hard Sci-Fi novel I’ve read that I enjoyed for the science, the story and the characters in equal amounts. It’s a Revelation.

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