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…

Summary:
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… 😉

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 Alien Graph

The Alien Graph

Behold! After a few days of contemplating what I said in the Ancient Aliens post – you know, about how alien’s technology and moral capacity are often interrelated in sci-fi – I realized I needed to put it into graphic form. And as I said in that post, if we are to consider technological advancement as one axis and level of benevolence as another, then the outcome would look something like this:

click to enlarge

The design is based on the Zombie graph that’s been floating around the internet for some time. There, the designer placed different Zombie movies based on two criteria: intelligence and speed. In much the same way, I’ve designed a graph for aliens that is based on two similar criteria: technological advancement and level of friendliness.

I selected aliens that I thought best represented the range of development and behavior in the sci-fi genre. I also included as many franchises as I could think of, just off the top of my head. I certainly wasn’t scientific about it, just relative and to the best of my abilities. And when I was done, I noticed an interesting pattern…

Hostile/Advanced Aliens Rule!:
For example, notice how the vast majority of races from your well-known franchises (Star Trek, B5, Stargate, Star Craft, AvP, Halo, etc) fall into the upper left quadrant. This is the area where malevolence and technological sophistication combine in varying degrees. By contrast, the second largest concentration of races occurs in the advanced/benevolent quadrant, again to varying degrees. Almost no races fall into the nascent (i.e. primitive) quadrants, be they hostile or gentle.

On the one hand, the Xenomorph from Alien and the Arachnids from Starship Troopers both fell into the technologically backward category (technically), and were both classified as malevolent because of their innate hostility to foreign organisms. The Na’vi, from Avatar, were the only alien race that fit the bill for technologically nascent and benevolent. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that could stack this analysis in a different way, but like I said, this was off the top of my head.

The Zerg, I have to admit, were a bit of a conundrum for me. While they are technically a race that does not employ technology per se, they are highly advanced in terms of their biological evolution, to the point where they rely on specialized creatures in the same way that humans rely on machinery. But then again, that’s all for the sake of ensuring that the different factions in the video game are evenly matched. It’s not meant to be a realistic assessment. Much the same is true of the Xenomorphs. While they do not employ tools, fly around in spaceships, or use guns, they are nevertheless an extremely evolved organism that is capable of besting humanity in any contest.

And just to be clear, the middle point of the graph (0,0, where the axes meet) is where humanity stands now in terms of moral behavior and technological development. Sure, some say we’d fall into the evil quadrant, but I tend to believe that humanity is morally ambiguous, neither too good or too evil. Where aliens fall into the spectrum in most sci-fi franchises is meant to reflect this. Much the same is true of technological prowess, where aliens are classified as “advanced” or “primitive” solely in comparison to ourselves.

This all might sound anthropocentric, but that’s the point, isn’t it? These are stories written by human beings for other human beings. All the references, symbols and measuring sticks come from inside us. So in the end, aliens themselves, as represented in our best science fiction, also come from inside ourselves. Their values, their tools, and even their appearances are all constructs of what is familiar and accessible to us. In short, they are merely tools with which we measure ourselves, both morally and technically.

Conclusions:
Well, right off the cuff I’d say the reason we prefer our aliens hostile and advanced is because it makes them seem more threatening and scary that way. Clearly, this makes for a more interesting story. While an alien race that is kind, innocent and backwards can make for an effective tale about the evils of colonialism and imperialism and how one can easily find themselves on the side of evil, these seem to be fewer and farther between. I’d say this is most likely because moral allegories are less intriguing than action dramas. Or maybe just prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys. Let someone else serve as the allegory for evil, selfish and runaway imperialistic behavior!

In addition, there’s the very real possibility that humanity will be making contact with an intelligent life form at some point in the future. And when we do, it’s likely to be the most awe-inspiring and frightening of experiences. When it comes to the unknown, ignorance begets fear and we prefer to err on the side of caution. So it would make sense that whenever we think of aliens, even if its just for the sake of fiction, we would naturally prefer to think of them as both learned and potentially hostile. If indeed aliens serve as a sort of projection for humanity’s own thoughts on itself, than pitching them as potentially hostile beings with advanced technology represents our own fear of the unknown.

In any case, if there is life out there, all these questions will be resolved in the distant future. Hell, maybe even the near-future. If some theorists are to be believed, aliens have already made contact with us and might even be walking among us right now. Granted, most of these people are hanging around the 7/11 with tin foil hats on, but they can’t all be crazy, right?