Good afternoon all – or morning or evening, as the case may be – and welcome to the final installment in my Revelation Space review. Today, I shall be covering the third and final installment in the trilogy, otherwise known as Absolution Gap. As the conclusion to the series, it brought together the apocalyptic trends established by the first two and wrapped them up pretty nicely, while also introducing some ideas and threads of its own.
These included the threat of the Inhibitors, the attempts by Neville Clavain and his rogue group of Conjoiners, Hyperpigs and refugees to stop them, and the growing awareness of those within the universe at large of their approaching doom. And, true to form, Reynold’s also tells the story through multiple threads which seem unrelated at the beginning, but ultimately come together to reveal a single plot arc that brings everyone and everything together.
And last, but not least, this book also brought the series full circle in terms of the quasi-religious motifs that play an important role in the story. As I mentioned in a previous post, concerning sci-fi and religion, Alastair Reynolds was not one to shy away from the subject of spirituality and religion. One look at the titles in this series (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap) are proof enough of that. However, Reynolds went a step beyond, weaving a narrative which begins with knowledge, proceeds to contrition, and then culminates in a sort of forgiveness for all humanity. In the end, the acts of the few who would risk all to save others provides the whole with a sort of reprieve, a second chance for them to contemplate their ambiguous future.
I also should mention that, much like in Redemption Ark, Reynolds chose to include characters and/or elements from his short stories and prequels into this book. In Redemption‘s case, this involved bringing Sky Haussmann back in the form of H, the man who helped Clavain and his friends find their way to Resurgam in time to witness the Inhibitors at work and help save the population. Here, we see hints of how the Revelation Space universe will end, which comes to us from the short story “Galactic North” which is to be found in the collection of the same name. But more on that later! In the meantime, let’s get into this book from the beginning…
The story opens in 2615, with aboard a lighthugger known as the Gnostic Ascension, a freelance treasure-hunter which is run by a sado-masochist named Jasmina. After waking her crewman Quaiche from reefersleep, she informs him that his attempts to lead them to valuable artifacts have failed for the last time. In order to ensure his success during their next stop, a planet in orbit of 107 Piscium, she places his lover Morwenna (an Ultra and fellow crewmember) in a scrimshaw suit on the outside of his exploratory ship until he returns with some goods.
While surveying a moon in orbit of the gas giant Haldora, he discovers what appears to be an alien bridge in a chasm, but is then attacked by automated defense systems. He then crashes on the planet and sends out a distress signal, knowing that since his ship is on the other side of Haldora, it will not be notified in time to save him. He begins to succumb to an indoctrination virus which he has been carrying for some time, and then notices a miracle has occurred. His shuttle has arrived in time to save him, tough the acceleration has killed Morwenna. During recovery, he realizes it was because Haldora disappeared for a fraction of a second, allowing his radio signal to reach his ship directly…
In the second thread, events take place on Ararat in 2675, twenty three since the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity landed on the planet. After receiving a capsule from space, Scorpio seeks out Clavain, who has withdrawn from society and left him in charge. This was apparently due to the death of his daughter Felka, who wandered into the sea to contact the Pattern Jugglers and never returned. They discover that the capsule is from Ana Khouri, whom they have not seen since events around Resurgam took place.
Ana informs them that they are fighting the Inhibitors using advanced tech that they have retrieved with the help of Ana’s daughter, Aura. Having come into contact with the Hades Matrix, the alien moon which was an actual data storage device, she now has visions and is able to convey alien technology to their forces which they have begun to incorporate. Unfortunately, Skade has returned from where they had left her last time and kidnapped Auna from Ana’s womb, and is now holding her hostage. After being attacked by Inhibitors, her ship crashed on Ararat.
Making their way to the ship, Skade demands that they kill Clavain in exchange for Auna. Clavain agrees and asks Scorpio to do it for him, since he trusts him as a comrade as arms. He also asks that his body be thrown into the ocean so it might join with Felka and Galiana, his daughter and wife. After killing Clavain and rescuing Auna, the ship is attacked by Inhibitors, but they are saved by the Conjoiner Remontoire who defends them from orbit.
Back at the colony, the leaders decide that its time to load up the Nostalgia and leave the planet and confer with Captain Brannigan (now part of his ship) who reveals that he has been preparing to do so for some time. Apparently, he has been aware of what’s been going on in space, the mounting fight between Inhibitors and their allies, and knew the day would come when he had to lift them off Ararat. Bringing what colonists they can with them, they break for orbit and are met by Remontoire who helps outfit them with their new weapons.
After debating their ultimate destination, they decide to go to Yellowstone to help evacuate the people there before the Inhibitors lay it to waste. Aura tells them to go to a moon called Hela, though they don’t understand why and choose to ignore her advice. When they arrive at Yellowstone, they find the planet overrun and few, if any, ship attempting to depart the system are uninfested by Inhibitor machinery. As a result, Scorpio’s leadership is challenged and a new council is formed, which elects to go to Hela as Aura suggested.
In the third and final thread, the place is Hela and the year is 2727. On this world, a young 17 year old named Rahsmika Els runs away from home to find her long lost brother Harbin, who joined the “Cathedrals” long ago. This is basically a mobile city made up of religious institutions that travel the planet, keeping its eyes on the sky so they may witness what their leader – Quaiche – witnessed many years ago. The disappearance of Haldora, which is the basis of their faith, is something they are waiting on, and all initiates are injected with Quaichist blood to receive the same virus that converted him.
When Quaiche becomes aware of her, he becomes very interested. Els apparently has the ability to discern lies from truth. What’s more, her principle interest lies in xenoarchaelogy, and her theories on the extinct insectoids which were indigenous to the planet (the Scuttlers) are quite fascinating. Apparently, this race was also wiped out by the Inhibitors, and their whereabouts are another subject of fascination for the cult that has grown up around Quaiche. Because of all this, he lures her to his Cathedral and takes her on as an apprentice, never revealing that her brother is in fact dead.
Meanwhile, Els becomes plagued by nightmares about a race known as the “Shadows”, a people that live in a brane (dimension or universe) parallel to our own. In the course of speaking to them through her dreams, she learns that their universe was consumed by a rogue terraforming agent and they are trying to pass through into our own. Eons back, they had showed the Scuttlers how to build a machine that could bring them across, which was apparently hidden inside Haldora. Hence, the gas giant is not a natural planet, but a giant cloaking field which sometimes malfunctions. Hence its disappearance from time to time.
Shortly thereafter, the Nostalgia shows up and begins entering into negotiations with Quaiche to protect the planet. While this is happening, he attempts to seize the ship, but Scorpio and his people defeat them. He then takes Khouri and Els hostage, who we now learn is actually Aura (now 17 years old). Her identity was a cover to infiltrate the planet and learn all she could about their society, and her gifts the result of her enhanced mind. Quaiche then reveals that he wants the Nostalgia to anchor itself to Hela and stop it from rotating, so that he may watch Haldora permanently. Brannigan agrees and lands the ship, but also deploys a Cache Weapon which fires on Haldora, destroying its cloaking field and revealing the machine within.
A fight ensues, in which Quaiche is killed and Nostalgia/Brannigan is destroyed. Aura and Khouri are rescued and reunited with the crew. However, the question remains of what to do about the Shadows. When a digital envoy enters into a scrimshaw suit and begins to speak to them, it claims the offer to destroy the Inhibitors is still open. However, Scorpio claims that their is a better way. He claims that materials found on Ararat match ones found on Hela, which they originally took to be massive seashell deposits, but which turned out to be advanced building materials.
He now knows that these were left behind by a race known as the Nestbuilders, an ancient species which move unseen throughout our galaxy to elude the Inhibitors. He suggests appealing to them for help against the Inhibitors, rather than trusting in these Shadows. He advised Remontoire to tell Aura and Khouri of this, and they escape the Cathedrals before it is destroyed. Scorpio, injured and having gone through cryogenics too many times, dies out on the planet surface…
In the epilogue, the year is 3125 and the place is a Pattern Juggler planet. This brings the story full circle, back to the beginning where this same woman was standing on the world right before it was to be evacuated. She reflect on everything that has happened and realizes Scorpio was right. After finding the Nestbuilders, which had been hiding between stars, they used their weaponry and eventually pushed the Inhibitor menace back. The war is still not over, but victory seems assured. However, in doing so, they created a greater problem: the so called “Greenfly” machines. These are a self-replicating race of terraformers that programmed to destroy every object in a solar system and reorganize them into trillions of vegetation-filled habitats.
Apparently, the Inhibitors had kept them in check, but without the Inhibitors, the Greenfly are now out of control. This is very similar to what the Shadows described as having destroyed their own universe, which leads Aura to conclude that they were not from a parallel brane, but from the future. As such, humanity is evacuating towards the Pleiades, but before they leave, Aura decides that she will swim with the Pattern Jugglers one last time. In so doing, she hopes to warn and warn the people they have assimilated about what is coming, and enters the water just as the story ends…
I should start this last section by stating that this was my least favorite book of the three. This does not mean I didn’t enjoy it, but as usual, there were the elements I had come to know and expect from Reynolds which detracted from the overall story. These include his use of convoluted plots, multiple twists, and some rather weird and out there concepts.
For starters, Clavain and Skade are both killed off pretty quickly in the beginning in a way that suggests that they were simply being done away with. In reality, Skade’s involvement in the story pretty much ended in book II when her ship blew up. Bringing her back and having her take Clavain with her just seemed like a way to write Clavain out, which I really didn’t see the need for (aside from making him a Jesus-like figure). Also, the concept of Ana’s daughter, which is the source of their ideas for fighting the Inhibitors, also seemed a bit weird. I mean a psychic, talking baby?
The Hades Matrix being a source of valuable information I could see, but why not just have it that they went back there to get as much information as they could in the intervening 23 years? And if they were going for a messiah-type figure in her daughter, why not let her grow up before she becomes this impressive psychic figure. It would go a long way to furthering the Judea-Christian elements that are prevalent in the story.
Which brings me to the next issue, that of the many plot twists. For starters, why was it necessary to blank out Aura’s mind so she could pretend to be a 17 year old native to Hela? Why not just send her in as is, posing as a religious convert who had come from off world? All kinds of people came to Hela everyday for this exact reason, so why not simply slip her in with them? Or, why didn’t they simply contact Quaiche directly when they got there instead of going through all this cloak and dagger? Things really didn’t materialize until they did anyway, so why go through all that? Granted, it tied the threads together quite succinctly, but by the time it is revealed, I began to feel that the story was trying to do too much.
And finally, there is the matter of the twist ending. At the time of reading, I felt like it came out of nowhere. Who were these Nestbuilders? Why hadn’t we heard of them until now? And why the last minute introduction of them? Naturally, I would later learn that the Nestbuilders did not so much come out of nowhere, but were instead an adaptation of something from an earlier work. Essentially, they are a species who make an appearance in “Galactic North” and who are related to the “Slugs” from Chasm City - i.e. the species that had taken to hiding between star systems to avoid the Inhibitors. This made sense and wrapped things up nicely by tying it back to his previous work. But much like with the character of H in the Redemption, I felt that things had not been explained fully.
What’s more, this does not explain how Scorpio was able to discern their existence and learn all he needed to know – like the fact that they could trust them or they would be able to help them beat the Inhibitors – from one tiny shard of shell they left behind. Perhaps if he revealed that Felka told them as much after meeting with the Pattern Jugglers one last time, or that Galiana had conveyed some hints in one of her visions before dying. But as I recall, no explanations were made and we’re simply handed this solution shortly before the book ends. Again, not well explained, and kind of comes off as a third act twist that feels contrived.
And now for the things I liked! As usual, Reynold’s characteristic knack for combining cool technology, hard science, a gritty take on the universe, and some interesting conceptualizations of alien civilizations proved very interesting. On top of all that, there was a rather intriguing commentary on organized religion and apocalypticism which ran through the entire story, which achieved a truly artistic climax in the way he envisioned the “Cathedrals”. I am forced to wonder if he adapted that from somewhere, or it was a Reynold’s original. Either way, very cool!
And in hindsight, I actually appreciate the way he managed to weave elements from Chasm City and Galactic North into this story. The way it ended on a note of uncertainty, due to the fact that their universe was beginning to resemble the very one the Shadows had told them about, really brought the story home and gave the impression of a tightly knit universe. Lastly, the way Reynolds took this opportunity (again) to get into some hard scientific concepts, most notably membrane theory (aka. M-theory), was quite welcome. Much like how he incorporating Galactic Collisions in volume two, it was not only educational but enjoyable to see real scientific theories being adapted into fiction.
All in all, I consider the Revelation Space trilogy to be one of the most influential and poignant series I have ever read. While it might not rank up there with Dune or LOTR, it remains a source of inspiration and ideas for me. Hell, Reynolds practically taught me all I know about nanotechnology, not to mention time dilation and relativistic space travel. Without his hard scientific influence, I would still be believing in a universe where FTL had to happen in order for good sci-fi to occur!
Note: Alas, I have yet to read the Prefect, the fifth and final novel in the Revelation Space universe. And in point of fact, several short stories make up the universe as well, some of which I believe I have yet to read. So really, I cannot say in all honesty that I’ve read the entire series or have commented on it fully. However, the novels of Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap are the only ones in the series that have a common plot and characters, hence why I refer to them as a “trilogy” and treat them as a contained set. And in that respect, I have finished with the Revelation Space Universe and my review thereof. Anything else at this point would just be gravy…