Rebooting An Idea – Reciprocity

future-city3For awhile now, I’ve been tinkering with a story idea known as Apocrypha. It first came to me back in 2009 when I decided to move away from space opera and into more hard science fiction. I even decided to relaunch the idea a few months back, which would be the second time I decided to reboot the idea. And now, I’m rebooting it yet again, but with one major change.

Basically, I’ve re-conceived the plot to focus on a world set in 2030, where China’s Communist system has collapsed, Russia continues to exist as a semi-fascist state, the internet of things is in full swing, and several different forces are competing for control over which direction the future takes. Some want to rehash old rivalries, while others want to bring about a revolution in computing that will dissolve all boundaries.

shanghai_towerThe name of the new story is Reciprocity, which is taken from the Chinese concept of Bao Ying. I chose this as a name because while researching Chinese ancestral religion, I came across a central theme which states that the fate of all human beings is determined by cosmic reciprocity.

The concept of Bao Ying is also expressed as follows in various Zhou-Dynasty texts:

On the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities.

This belief incorporates two separate elements:

  1. Ming yun: which loosely translated, means personal destiny. Whereas ming is “life” or “right”, the word yun defines “circumstance” and “individual choice”. In the Chinese ancestral faith, it is perceived as something both fixed (bound by fate) and flexible (implying choice and free will).
  2. Yuan fen: which means “fateful coincidence”, describing good and bad possibilities and potential relationships. Here too, the elements of fate and choice intersect, with good and bad casualties being assigned usually to one or the other.

Both concepts are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance events (for better or worse), are part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed. Given the fact that I thought the story should focus on China, this concept spoke to me.

cyber_virusOriginally, Apocrypha was all about a group of apocalyptic terrorists who have ties to various anti-modernist, anti-western groups who try to use a Chinese cyber-virus named Hǔnluàn (Chinese for chaos) to accomplish their goals. However, this idea wasn’t panning out in a few ways. Mainly, the antagonists didn’t seem believable to me, especially where their motivations are concerned.

But after talking it over with a friend and neighbor, I came to realize that the real focus of the story was China – or rather, how the aftermath of Maoism would affect the country and the global balance of power. In this sense, the antagonists were much more believable if they themselves were Chinese ex-pats, people who were unhappy with the current world order and wanted to change it.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsBorrowing from Russia’s post-Communist experience, I basically foresee China going through many of the same problems in the near future. First, the state would find itself under a great deal of pressure due to ongoing demands for reform, pro-democracy protests, and the memory of Tienanmen Square. And I also imagine the health effects of air pollution and cancer farms would also add to the resistance.

But by the 2020s, I expect that the country will also be reeling from the effects of drought, famine, and the destruction of water tables. And then there would be the collapse of the economy caused by the implosion of the real estate bubble – a very likely possibility – which would end the Party’s long history of buying loyalty with economic growth. At that point, the Party would officially fall under the weight of its own corruption, bankruptcy and failure.

phoenix-towers-worlds-tallest-wuhan-china-designboom-01Ten years later, China would find itself in a state of serious change and facing an ambiguous future. On the one hand, it would remain a major power economically and militarily, but would still be suffering from lingering environmental damage and uneven development. As a result, it would find itself vulnerable to quasi-fascist politicians looking to exploit people’s uncertainty and funnel it towards a revisionist agenda.

I think you’ll agree, this idea makes way more sense than its predecessor. What’s more, it would give me a chance to cover a big angle I was looking at, which was the involvement of former members of the People’s Liberation Army Cyberwarfare Division (aka. Unit 61398). Assuming that said people were out a job in the not-too-distant future, they would be seriously upset and willing to help in a malicious plot.

What do you think? Too political? Or does it have potential?

Absolution Gap

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…

Plot Synopsis:
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… 😉

What’s On…

If you’re like me, and suffer from what I assume is a form of literary ADD – where you can’t seem to commit to reading, or writing, one thing at a time – then it helps to take stock once in a while and make a list. At other times, its disconcerting, like whenever I check out my Goodreads account and see that a book I cracked over a year ago is still on my “Currently Reading” list.

But today I thought I’d combine that list with my list of upcoming reviews. As I’m sure I mentioned in a previous post or two, this vacay has been pretty good for scoring new books. I got some long 0verdue ones and managed to find at least one that has come highly recommended. To ensure that they don’t wind up in my pile, partially read and collecting dust, I thought I’d make a definitive list. That oughta help my ADD!

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is not a physician or psychiatrist and has no medical credentials whatsoever. He is thus in no position to diagnose, either in himself or others, any form of ADD or its hyperactive cousin, ADHD.

  1. Mona Lisa Overdrive – the final book in the Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson. Due to diversions in reading The Hunger Games, Second Foundation and a slew of others, this book has remained opened far longer than it had to have been. I hope to finish it this or next week.
  2. Second Foundation – the third installment in the Foundation series, which I have been meaning to read for some time. As the (sort of) conclusion to the Foundation saga, and after reviewing the first two, it was only fitting that I find and tackle the third book. I say sort of because decades after finishing this third novel in the series, Asimov would finally cave to demands that he return to the series with three more books. Fans and publishers, what can you do?
  3. Martian Chronicles – this book I just picked up last week. After years of hearing great things and wanting to get into it, I finally procured a copy and began devouring it. I got half way through before the wife and I got back to civilization and it was forced to take its place in the queue. It’s a testament to Bradbury’s old school, accessible, yet still high-minded style that you can read through his works quickly and still feel like you’ve digested a lot. I look forward to finishing this one and borrowing freely from it 😉
  4. A Feast for Crows – my reading of this fourth installment in the Game of Thrones series has stalled for a few reasons. One, I got a little tired after the first three books, especially since all the main characters keep dying! Second, after three books of excitement and climactic battles, George RR Martin seemed to think that was needed was a book that contained all the scraps. Not a bad read by any measure, but it’s kind of like a serving of leftovers after three sumptuous banquets.
  5. We – the classic of classic by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Again, I cracked this book a long time ago and haven’t been able to get into it due to the myriad of books that have entered and left my reading pile in the interim.  I want nothing more than to finish it and give it its long overdue due! For crying out loud, this man practically invented the dystopian satire and inspired my heroes – Orwell and Huxley. If that doesn’t warrant a read, I don’t know what does!
  6. The Giver – here’s a book that my wife has been recommending for ages! Considered to be a classic of YA fiction, this novel is certainly a must-read for those looking to stay current on the genre. Having found a copy at my local Coles, right next to City of Ember, I decided it was time to have a looky-loo so that I knew what I was talking about next time I chose to include it in a review of current utopian/dystopian lit.
  7. Red Mars – holy crap has this one been on my shelf for a long time! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked it up and put it down. Which is really too bad. It’s definitely one of the more profound sci-fi books that I’ve ever read, but somehow, the style lends itself to a certain inaccessibility for me. I do enjoy reading it, but find that it doesn’t quite happen easily or organically. In that respect, Kim Stanley Robinson is not unlike William Gibson for me. I know I want to hear from them, and I do get through their books, but not with the ease and grace that I would something by Bradbury or Asimov.
  8. Ready Player One – this one I bought alongside The Giver because I thought it was time to invest in something new. I tend to be reserved about buying the works of new authors, mainly because I don’t invest time and money in something which might prove to be disappointing or a flavor of the month kind of thing. However, I said ‘screw it’ this time around and picked this one up. And lo and behold, I discovered that it is actually a quite famous read, with the entire back of the dust jacket dedicated to the heaps of accolades that have been piled on it. Not only was it a manager’s pick at the Coles, it also comes recommended by my peeps over Them folks know their sci-fi, so I’m glad I went with my gut and checked this one out!
  9. Starfire – this hard sci-fi novel, by Charles Sheffield, is actually one I picked up in a laundry room at the park where my wife and I were staying in Lund. We had just returned from camping, were in the process of returning to civility (with showers and other amenities) and realized we still didn’t have anything to read! So I took a gander at this one, and after seeing that it was endorsed by Kim Stanley Robinson, I gave it a chance. I only got about 70 pages in before we had to leave and I chose not to take it (having nothing to exchange), but I was wrapped up enough in the plot that I decided I’d get a copy as soon as I could. Still looking, might have to go Amazon or Kindle on this bad boy, but I don’t intend to let it slip. The plot, which involves the creation of a massive orbital shield after A/B Centauri goes supernova, is quite interesting, and constructed using the latest in astronomical data. Check it out if you can!

Well, that about does it for me. Nine books in the reading list, not so bad. I could think of some more but… seriously, who the hell wants that kind of responsibility 😉

Chasm City

Next up in my review of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe is the prequel novel and setting piece known as Chasm City! Released in 2001, one year after Revelation Space and a year before Redemption Ark (I know, prolific, aint he?), the story takes place outside of the main trilogy, but details the setting and some of the characters who will play an important role in it.

As the name would suggest, the setting of this novel is the all-important location known as Chasm City itself. In Revelation Space, we got treated to an earful about this place since it is the undisputed hub of the known universe. Or at least it was before the Melding Plague, a terrible nanotechnological virus, turned the place into a twisted, gothic nightmare.

According to Reynold’s many descriptions of the place throughout the series, Chasm City was not only the capitol of Yellowstone (chief planet of the Epsilon Eridani system), it was also the center of the universe when it came to commerce, innovation and technological progress. It’s multi-tiered cities, contained within the “Mosquito Net” (i.e. habitation dome) were a marvel of nanotechnological achievement, living buildings that were capable of maintaining themselves.

The name itself referred to the fact that the city itself was built in a chasm which was open to the planet’s interior. From this chasm, large clouds of gas would erupt periodically, which the inhabitants used to fashion an atmosphere. In orbit, a huge array of satellites and orbital platforms had been installed, known as the “Glitter Band” due to their unrivaled beauty and the fact the wealthiest citizens maintained opulent homes in orbit.

And last, but not least, Chasm City was the home of the human faction known as the “Demarchists”, a name which is an amalgam of Democratic and Anarchy. These people were the most advanced factions in the universe, save for perhaps the Conjoiners, who used implant technology and wireless communications to create a society that needed no official offices or institutions. All decision making processes were run by direct democracy and the law maintained by police who enforced the public will. Sure, there were still offices and ranks, but the general trend was towards de-structurizing and an avoidance of hierarchy.

Plot Synopsis:
The first thread story opens on the planet known as Sky’s Edge, a planet in orbit of 61 Cygni A, where an enforcer named Tanner Mirabel is looking for a post-mortal noble named Argent Reivich. This man, we quickly learn, was responsible for the death of the wife of Tanner’s employer and is fleeing the planet for Yellowstone. Tanner and his friend pursue him, a chase which takes them into the depths of Chasm City and provides a first-hand look at the effects the Melding Plague has had and the illicit activities that have taken over the now fallen city.

In addition, two more threads open through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. It is established early on that Tanner has been infected by an “indoctrination virus” – a sort of bio-engineered program which forces those who have it to experience religious visions. He interprets the dreams he has as a symptom, which are predictably concerned with the life of Sky Haussmann, the oft-revered and hated man who founded the colony of Sky’s Edge. This constitutes thread two of the story, where Tanner dreams of Sky’s childhood aboard the Flotilla that traveled to Sky’s Edge from Earth many centuries in the past, aboard generational ships where he was amongst the waking crew.

In the third thread, Tanner relives the traumatic events that led him to Yellowstone in pursuit of Reivich. Apparently, Tanner worked for a man named Cahuella, an arms dealer who is being pursued by Reivich because he sold arms to a rival family which used them to kill his parents. We also learn that Tanner loved Cahuella’s wife, a woman named Gritta. According to the flashbacks he experiences, it was while deploying to the jungles of Sky’s Edge, in an attempt to intercept Reivich, that the incident that led to Gitta’s death took place.

Upon reaching Chasm City, Tanner sees first hand what has become of the city. A once technological marvel, it has now degenerated into a dark and ugly, the buildings appearing as twisted, diseased trees. The Glitter Band has fallen into disrepair, and is now known as the “Rust Belt”. There is also a lucrative trade in what is referred to as “Dream Fuel”, which appears to render users temporarily immune to the Melding Plague. And last, there is the “Game” which Tanner becomes trapped in, where residents of the Canopy (those few still-privileged people who live close to the Mosquito Net) hunt people who live down in “The Mulch” (aka. down below).

After escaping the “gamers”, Tanner takes a female resident of the Canopy hostage and learns that she is part of the lucrative “Dream Fuel” trade. With her help, they travel deep into Yellowstone’s underground network and tunnels and find the source of it, which appears to be a giant, sentient slug. This begins to line up with some of the vision’s Tanner has been having involving Sky and the Flotilla, which continue to haunt his dreams.

Basically, Tanner is now aware that Sky took over control of the Flotilla after his father was murdered by an embedded agent. In a twist, Sky allowed this to happen because he was outraged to learn that his parents had taken him from another family that had died while in cryosleep. While in command of the fleet, he learned that they were being pursued by a strange, phantom ship. When they investigated, they discovered that it was an alien vessel that had morphed to look like one of their own. Inside – drumroll please – was a giant slug living in a big pool of Dream Fuel!

Yes, it seems that the fuel is in fact the organic secretions of the Slug, and that they are a sentient race that has been living in hiding ever since the emergence of a terrible alien threat that has been destroying all space-faring life. For those who have read Revelation Space at this point, it is clear the slug is referring to the Inhibitors. Hence why the Slug ship was following the Flotilla, it had hoped to remain inconspicuous by mimicking other species and their ships. The one currently being used to provide Dream Fuel is another, one which chose to hide deep within Yellowstone to avoid detection.

At the same time, Tanner becomes aware of one horrid fact. After remembering everything from the night where Gitta died, Tanner comes to the realization that it was he that killed her. In the course of their advance through the jungle to intercept Reivich, he and his men ambushed their camp and took Gitta hostage. Rather than let them get away, Tanner opened fire and accidentally killed her. However, he is confused because his memories end with Cahuella taking his own revenge by feeding Tanner to one of his giant snakes.

Nevertheless, Tanner gets back on Reivich’s trail and finally corners him in orbit. There, he finds the ruined body of Reivich who has been hooked up to a machine that was supposed to recor*d his consciousness and create an “alpha” (i.e. a living computer construct) of him. However, the process was rushed, and now Reivich’s body has been irreparably damaged. Close to death, he reveals another twist. It seems that he is not Tanner after all, but Cahuella himself! Small hints are given throughout the novel tot his effect, but he realizes that it is true when Tanner himself walks in!

Yes, it seems that Cahuella couldn’t deal with the anguish of losing his wife and decided to switch memories and appearances with Tanner while he was busy torturing him. However, Tanner managed to escape after Cahuella left and made his way to Yellowstone to get some payback of his own. The two fight, but eventually Cahuella realizes his body contains all kinds of enhancements, such as poisonous snakes’ teeth, which he used to overpower Tanner. Reivich dies too, and Cahuella is left with his many painful revelations.

Another painful revelation is the fact that the dreams he’s having or not the result of the indoctrination virus, but his own memories coming to the surface. It seems that he, Caheulla, is in fact Sky Haussmann himself, and that after sacrificing several innocent lives to get his own ship to 61 Cygni A ahead of the rest of the Flotilla. Because of this, the world was named Sky’s Edge, a sly reference (and criticism) of all he did to make it there first. After he set down, he was set upon by other groups of colonists who wanted him brought to justice. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t crucified publicly, but substituted himself with a look0alike and then slipped into the jungle to live out his life in a new persona (Cahuella).

Seeking redemption now, he returns to Chasm City and teams up with his lady friend in the hopes of making some changes. For one, the Dream Fuel trade is to be regulated and humane now, no more torturous extraction from the poor Slug. Second, the “Game” is reformed so that the hunt is for volunteers only, with plenty of rules and chances for the “hunted” to save themselves after they are caught. With all this in place, Tanner Mirabel, aka. Caheulla, aka. Sky Haussmann, settles in for a life he can live with and says goodbye to a life of revenge and running.

To begin with the good points, this book was once again an intriguing and exciting romp through the Revelation Space universe. After that first installment, this book cashed in on all the buzz and interest he had created for his fictitious backdrops, such as Sky’s Edge and Chasm City, both very interesting place in their own right. It also detailed a number of elements that were brought up but not developed too much in the first novel, such as the game “Shadowplay”, which Ana Khouri was a member of. At the same time, it also discussed and delved into the dynamics of life and the wars on Sky’s Edge, which also came up in relation to Khouri’s character.

And of course, there was plenty more of the same interesting stuff that set’s Reynold’s universe apart. The concept of time dilation, post-mortality, alpha-level simulations, the Inhibitors, the Melding Plague, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants, and the “indoctrination virus”. All of these elements were brought up in Revelation Space or the subsequent novels to one degree or another, and it was good that Reynold’s side-stepped the trilogy in order to provide some more deep background and development for these concepts.

But above all, the primary focus of the novel, which was on Chasm City itself, was indispensable to this series. A once powerhouse of technology and civility, the Gothic, steampunk-themed environment is just so interesting and rich that it really had to have it’s own book. After reading about it in the first novel and seeing subsequent references to it later in the series, I just knew that Reynold’s would have to come back to it at some point. There was simply too much there for it to a passing mention, not to mention too much in the way of implied significance.

In addition to being an richly detailed environment that inspires so much mental imagery, Chasm City is a fitting metaphor for how technological progress can so easily go from being the stuff of dreams to the stuff of nightmares. It only makes sense that the urban center where all the greatest technological leaps of the future were developed – brain implants, man-machine interface, alpha-level constructs, clinical immortality, nanotech, biotech – that it is also be the place where it all came crashing down. And what did it was especially appropriate – a nano-virus which hit them where they were most vulnerable by perverting the very technology they were so dependent on.

As for the weaknesses, well, they are something that comes up a lot in Reynold’s works. For one, there are too many twists! Why, for example, was it necessary for Cahuella to take on Tanner Mirabel’s identity? Wasn’t it enough that the man who failed to save the woman he loved, who also had a bit of an elicit thing going with her, was out for revenge? And why for that matter did he also need to be Sky Haussmann. One hidden identity was enough, and given its importance to the storyline, it would have been enough for him to be Sky.

Think about it, the reviled and worshiped founded of the colony runs into the jungle and takes on the identity of a simple bounty hunter. Wouldn’t that have been better than assuming the identity of a high-profile arms dealer? And since he settled down to become a professional hunter in Chasm City anyway, wouldn’t him being Tanner all along provide more symmetry? And to explain the whole memory wipe thing, just say that he assumed the identity of Tanner completely to avoid any slip ups, or because he genuinely wanted a new lease on life. Playing it the other way was just plain weird.

Also, there are some other odd elements in the book, stuff that seemed less creative and more far-fetched than his usual story elements. For example, we see that in Chasm City, people rely on more than just “Dream Fuel” to protect themselves from the Melding Plague and prolong their lives now that they can no longer depend on nanotechnology. One of them is a genetic enhancement using Koi fish DNA. Seeing as how the Koi is quasi-immortal and will continue to grow so long as they have new environments to grow into, the residents of Chasm City decided to harness their genetic material in order to prolong their lives indefinitely.

In fact, Tanner/Cahuella/Sky is shown to a sort of shrine in one of the city’s thoroughfares where a massive, centuries-old  Koi is being kept in a tank and revered. And it struck me as just plain strange. Sure, this scene provides a sort of commentary on the vagaries of clinical immortality, but it still felt oddly out of place. So, for that matter, did the descriptions of the various people of the city who have used genetic enhancements to elongate their faces and skulls in unnatural shapes, as well as grow wings and other appendages. I get that in this universe, people can do some rather odd things with their biology, but why the hell would they want to? Much like hypercats, superchimps, the winged unicorns and other such creations from the series, it felt like Reynold’s is getting off-kilter and being weird for the sake of weird.

But other than that, the book is a worthy read and kind of required if you want to be able to make sense of the series. Like I said before, there were aspects of Redemption Ark that I didn’t get until well after I read this book, and since it’s placement in the series comes before the other books, it behooves the reader to tackle this one before moving on to the later books in the series.

Coming up next, Absolution Gap and the conclusion to Alastair Reynold’s lineup!

Of Faster-Than-Light Travel

It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.

And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!

Alcubierre Drive:
Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.

The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.

The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.

FTL Drive:
The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.

Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.

Holtzman Drive:
This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.

Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.

Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.

In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.

Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.

Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.

Infinite Probability Drive:
The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.

Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!

Subspace Jump Drive:
Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.

The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.

Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.

Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.

Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.

Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.

Warp Drive:
Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.

By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.

Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!

In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.

Final Thoughts:
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.

One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.

Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.

  1. Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
  2. That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.

Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:

This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!

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!

The Future is Here: Asteroid Mining!

The concept is not entirely new. In fact, it’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Moving mining operations, refineries and even heavy industry to the Asteroid Belt as a way of reducing environmental stress and taking advantage of the sheer abundance of natural resources there. It was the concept behind Ben Bova’s The Asteroid Wars trilogy, and was even mentioned as early as 1898 in Garrett P. Serviss’ story Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

But as they say, science fiction leads to science fact. And when it comes to mining the asteroid belt, it seems some wealthy financiers and visionaries are hoping to get in on the ground floor. The company’s name is Planetary Resources, and its backers include James Cameron (of Aliens and Terminator fame) and Google founder Larry Page. Between these three forces, the idea and development capital are being made to being the commercial exploitation of our system’s many, many rocks.

The plan call for the development of viable space craft which will be able to fly out to the Belt, harvest materials, and then return. However, the long term projections involve the creation of mining colonies, heavily automated facilities that will be capable of taking in harvested rocks and ore and convert them to useable materials before they are ever brought back to Earth. After all, while every asteroid is a potential goldmine (literally!), the goal here is to eventually move the majority of the smelting and other potentially harmful operations off of Earth, into space and into orbit.

Click on the link below to read the full article and video below to learn the full extent of the company’s plans. Who knows? If the prospect looks good, maybe Cameron will want to buy the rights to Bova’s series and start making a series of promotional movies 😉

CBC News – Planetary Resources Inc.