The Revelation Space Universe

Lighthuggers, Inhibitors, Ultras, Hyperpigs, Conjoiners Drives, Demarchists, Chasm City… Few science fiction authors have come up with as many weird and intriguing concepts as Alastair Reynolds. The author of the Revelation Space series, Pushing Ice, Blue Remembered Earth, Century Rain, House of Suns, Terminal World, and a slew of short stories and articles, Reynolds is not only a hard science fiction author but an actual scientist.

Yes, from 1991 to 2004, Reynolds worked as an astronomer for the European Space Research and Technology Center, which is part of the European Space Agency, in Noordwijk, Holland. So when it comes to matters of science and space – be it exploration, travel, or the physics thereof – this guy really knows what he’s talking about.

To start my review of his work off right, I’d like to cover his first full-length novel. Known as Revelation Space, this story became the basis for the universe of the same name and the setting of most of his books. It also advanced a lot of ideas and concepts which would inspire yours truly ;)

Revelation Space (2000):
The story opens with three separate but interrelated strands, though their connection is initially unclear. The first takes place on a planet known as Resurgam in 2551, where an archaeologist named Dr. Dan Sylveste is leading an expedition to uncover the remains of the Amarantin. This alien species, which were a winged-humoid race, existed for over 900,000 years on the planet before some cataclysmic event wiped them out.

The most recent discovery of the excavation team proves that the Amarantin were far more technologically developed than previously thought. Retiring to his den, Dan begins to commune with the beta-level simulation of his deceased father, Calvin Sylveste. Often, he consults his father, who died on Yellowstone, for advice in matters scientific and political. However, Dan soon learns that coup has taken place due to his obsession with uncovering the Amarantin, and a party shows up at the site to arrest him.

Cut to 2540 aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a “Lighthugger” vessel that is the mainstay of the universe in this time (the name refers to the fact that it can fly to within an inch of the speed of light.) Here,Triumvir Ilia Volyova is awake while the other crew members are in reefersleep (cryogenic suspension). They are en route to the Epsilon Eridani system and the planet of Yellowstone to find Dan Sylveste, not knowing that he departed for Resurgam some 15 years previously.

Its crew of Ultras (modified spacers) is desperate to find Sylveste since their Captain is a victim of the Melding Plague – a nanovirus that has infected all of Yellowstone. Basically, they are seeking his services yet again since his last treatment did not seem to take. Ilia also plans to pick up a new gunner since their last one apparently went insane and had to be spaced, the only clue he left behind was the name “Sun Stealer”, which he wrote on a wall in his own blood.

Last, the scene switches to 2524 and the surface of Yellowstone, where professional assassin Ana Khouri is hired by a wealthy recluse known as The Mademoiselle. Apparently, she wants Dan Sylveste found and killed, and she knows the Nostalgia for Infinity will go to the ends of the universe to find him. As such, she orders Khouri to go into stasis and meet up with the crew 20 years later when they arrive in orbit.

Meanwhile, we learn a few things of importance. For one, the Nostalgia appears to have been infected by virus other than the one that’s got their Captain in cryo-sleep. This virus appears to be what drove the last gunner insane and is threatening to kill Ilia now. During a training exercise where they test their landing suits, another glitch results in the death of another crewman, leaving only the Triumvirs – Ilia, Hegazi, Sajake – and the Captain.

We also learn that the cargo hold of the ship is holding a large supply of Cache Weapons, what are apparently referred to as Hell-class, all of which appear to be a bunch of Doomsday devices. Ilia secured these weapons from sources unknown, but in time it is suggested that they are of Conjoiner manufacture – the same advanced faction that built the Nostalgia’s engines (aka. Conjoiner Drives).

Artist concept of Ana Khouri

And finally, we learn why Sylveste is on Resurgam and why the Mademoiselle wants him dead. As it turns out, the Sylveste family maintained a research institute on Yellowstone dedicated to the study of alien civilizations. Many extinct cultures were discovered by humanity as it spread into space, no living ones aside from two exceptions. The first were the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide sentient species that comprised massive kelp nets that seemed to preserve the neural patterns of anyone who walked into them. The second were known as the Shrouders, aliens that were presumed to exist within a bunch of anomalous space-time bubbles.

Sylveste became interested in these when a colleague of his became the first to survive contact with a “Shroud” but was left insane. After years of doing nothing but scrawl images on the floor, he spoke and told Sylveste that he actually made contact with an alien intelligence inside the Shroud. This area of space-time, he said, was known as “Revelation Space”. He told him further that they held information about a great mystery that would explain the deaths of all alien civilizations in the quadrant, and that he had to go to the Jugglers to get it. As preservers of memories, they held the secrets of many dead alien worlds in their massive neural nets.

Having completed all this, Sylveste finally flew into the Shroud and survived. However, his partner in the expedition, a female researcher, was lost and presumed dead. In truth, she survived, but just barely, and returned to Yellowstone where she became a recluse known as… wait for it… the Mademoiselle! Hence why she wants Sylveste dead, because she blames him for her accident and the fact that she is now forced to live in a containment apparatus.

Ah but there’s more! After he made contact with “Revelation Space”, Sylveste was told to go to Resurgam where he would find his answers. He did not know why, but it seemed the Amarantin were the final piece of the puzzle. Before that happened though, he was brought aboard the Nostalgia to help the Captain for the first time. And years later, his work would be interrupted when the colony rose up against him.

Hints are also given as to what is going on vis a vis the extinction and the virus aboard the Nostalgia. Essentially, eons and eons ago, the first intelligent races of the Galaxy met up and began a prolonged conflict known as the Dawn War. After millions of years of fighting, the remaining civilizations, exhausted and cynical about sentient life, combined their intelligences with machinery to create a series of specialized weapons. Collectively, they came to be known as the Inhibitors, a race of machine-like intelligences that sought out sentient life and exterminated it once it achieved a high level of technical development.

Sun Stealer by bartolomeusz

Meanwhile, on Resurgam, Sylveste is given a reprieve from house arrest to see the latest results of the excavation, which have proceeded in his absence. It seems that the crews turned up a massive underground city containing many ruins, and hints as to what happened. Featured over and over are an Amarantin idol which is reaching towards the sun. Hints are also given that Resurgam’s moon, Cerberus, was also particularly significant to the Amarantin people. After learning of all this, Sylveste proposes marriage to his new sweatheart and they prepare to have their marriage in the city ruins.

By 2566, Khouri is brought aboard as the ships new gunner and they arrive at Resurgam. However, before they make orbit, a nearly catastrophic situation occurs when one of the ship’s doomsday weapons suddenly becomes active and has to be released. It detonates off their bow and creates an artificial singularity which very nearly consumes their ship. Having just made it away, Ilia concludes that the virus is stepping up its game!

Once they make orbit, the crew establishes contact and demands Sylveste be turned over. To make their point, they stage a ruse where they pretend to level an outlying settlement, and the colony responds by handing Sylveste over. This they do by attacking him during his wedding and taking him and his wife prisoner. The crew fly down in their special suits to retrieve him and announce that they plan to bring him and his wife aboard. However, Sylveste turns the tables by saying his artificial eyes contain a pinhead antimatter device that will destroy their ship. He lists new terms, which include letting his wife go and taking him to Resurgam’s moon of Cerberus. In exchange, he promises to help their Captain any way he can.

As Sylveste and the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity approach Cerberus, Sylveste realizes the massive celestial body isn’t a planet at all—but rather, a massive space station. They fly inside and begin to be set upon by the devices defenses, but eventually make it down inside. Once in there, Sylveste realizes what it really is. Basically, the moon was built eons ago by the Inhibitors which served as a beacon to alert them of the emergence of a star faring intelligence. Once activated, it would signal the Inhibitors to launch their machines to the system so they could exterminate whichever species found them. Sylveste concludes that this is what happened to the Amarantin.

Aboard the Nostalgia, Ilia also is confronted by the truth when the virus threatens to finally take over the ship. Appearing on the ships main display, an Amarantin who identifies himself as “Sun Stealer” explains their purpose to her. Apparently, the Amarantin are the Shrouders! These bubbles in space time have been their protection against the Inhibitors for hundreds of thousands of years, and their means of drawing out new sentient races to find them and do their bidding. When Sylveste’s colleague passed into them, they realized their time had come, and as such, tried to manipulate him into discovering if the Inhibitors were still alive out there.

Unfortunately, this case of first contact went poorly. Not being able to recognize his neural patterns, the Amarantin nearly drove Sylveste’s friend completely mad with their message. Luckily for them, he was able to make sense of it in time and delivered it to Sylveste, who then came back to the Shroud where they were able to imprint a series of clues in his mind as well as a virus that would monitor him. These, they hoped would eventually lead him back to their homeworld and the moon of Cerebrus.  Their intent all along was to have someone else make contact with the Inhibitor machine, thus they could see if it was safe to emerge from hiding. If so, they planned to retake their homeworld. If not, it would be a different race who was exterminated and they would wait until the next came along.

However, that plan changed when Sylveste came aboard the Nostalgia for the first time and unknowingly planted the virus in the ship’s hardware. Hence why the gunner went mad and why its been threatening to take over the ship. Cut off from Sylveste, it was beginning to go mad. However, once he was aboard, it saw an opportunity to complete its mission. Having taken the helm, Sun Stealer now kept the ship in orbit around the moon and began reporting everything it saw back to the Amarantin Shroud.

Down on the station, Sylveste realizes that the beacon has become active and that he has been played. Rather than allow the Inhibitors to emerge, he detonates the bombs in his eyes to destroy the facility. Back on the ship, Ilia decides to unleash the Melding Plague that’s been consuming their Captain and let  Sun Stealer do battle with it. Sun Stealer loses and the ship begins transforming into a gothic nightmarish version of itself. But at least they’ve restored control of it to themselves. The story ends with the crew reuniting and setting course for Resurgam again.

Good Points and Bad:
Well, I don’t know if you could tell from my description, but the plot of this book was pretty damn complicated and mighty layered. And personally, I thought that was a good thing! It is not unusual for an author to have distinct points of view in a story that seem unrelated but inevitably come together, but Reynolds was really working overtime with this one. How and where the plots overlapped could produce headaches due to the sheer effort of keeping track of it all, but I for one felt it worked pretty well.

In addition, the inventions and futuristic concepts were a real mind-blower for me at the time. In fact, I specifically picked up this book in order to research modern sci-fi and get a dose of the latest hard science, and that’s exactly what I got. Beta-level simulations, Alpha constructs, nanotechnology, servitors, Lighthuggers, inertia, controlled singularities, and the like. It all called to mind numerous other classic sci-fi franchises, many of which Reynolds himself acknowledged a debt to.

For example, his Inhibitors sounded very much like the Firstborn of the Space Odyssey series. Here and there, you had aliens who were so advanced that they could download their consciousness into machinery that would preserve them for eternity, making for effective space travel in a universe that didn’t permit FTL. Reefersleep also called to mind cryogenic pods from Alien and other franchises. Cybernetic implants, augmentation and nanobots are all concepts one can find elsewhere too. Still, the way Reynolds combined these things together was quite masterful, and very much in keeping with the tradition of space opera.

And finally, I found the story downright intriguing. The concept of an ancient race that prevents the rise of space-faring sentient life because it knows from experience that such life will likely engage in prolonged war with other sentients seemed quite believable. One need only look at the process of human history to know that conflict is a defining feature, and that peace on a grand scale only seems to follow in the wake of terrible, exhausting wars. Consider Europe after two world wars, Japan after the Shogunate wars, or China after its Warring States period (and even after that!) Like it or not, peace and consensus are very often the result of war, war, and more war.

Okay, now for the weak stuff. As I said already, the plot can be convoluted. For the most part, this works in the story’s favor. However, something which comes up in other Reynold’s works as well, is his tendency to throw in too many plot twists, especially towards the end. Already we have a very complicated and layered story which really didn’t need any more curve balls, but some are thrown even as the other plot threads are culminating. In this story, the unnecessary twists involve last-minute revelations.

In Sylveste’s case, this happens just before he is captured by his own people and he takes the opportunity to unburden himself to his wife. He tells her that his father once had an alpha-level simulation of himself, as opposed to the beta that he frequently talks to. He gave this alpha to the Pattern Jugglers in exchange for the info they gave him. It is also revealed that Dan Sylveste is in fact a clone of his father. Hence his vanity and obsessive nature, they were retained from a father who wanted a duplicate of himself.

Last, there’s the revelation that the Captain of Nostalgia – John Brannigan – went into the Jugglers sea himself and used them to imprint his mind on Sajaki, one of the Triumvirs. His reasons had to do with the fact that he knew he needed to go into reefersleep until they found a cure for the Melding Plague. Unable to stand the idea of being out of it for so long, he decided to get the Jugglers to erase Sajaki’s mind and replace it with a copy of his own, that way he could be aware of everything that was going on while he was under. This twist seemed quite unnecessary too, as it really didn’t advance the plot any, just added another complication.

But overall, I was very pleased with this book and was sure to pick up its sequel. In fact, Revelation Space was the second Reynold’s book I had read at this point (the first was Century Rain) and I consider his writing to be a highly educational experience. In fact, much of his ideas and hard scientific basis served to inspire my own writing, particularly when it came to Source. So when it comes to authors I owe a debt to, he’s right up there! Stay tuned for more reviews of Reynolds and the Revelation Space Universe!

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